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15 YEARS OF PAIN

Businessman, wife endure 'hell' trying to adopt relative

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 09, 2014    

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BUSINESSMAN Petius 'Peter' Chang and his wife Janice have been trying to adopt a blood relative of theirs for over 15 years.

However, the bureaucracy associated with formalising the process has resulted in the indefinite wait that has caused the couple unbearable emotional suffering and pain.

The couple's destiny with the prolonged ordeal began on April 17, 1997, when the child's mother, Geraldine Barrett, died at King's County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York where she had gone to do heart surgery. The child was four months old when the mother left Jamaica, and was placed in the care of the Changs, who are United States citizens.

Shortly after, the baby's brother was also taken into their St Andrew home, as the children's father was unable to care for them.

Both have lived with the Changs since, with the young man completing high school and now at university, while the young woman is doing well at high school.

The formal process to adopt began in 1999 and despite numerous attempts to conclude it, the matter continues in limbo.

The Changs sought and were granted legal guardianship by the Supreme Court of Jamaica for the two children in January 2006, seven years after they began their long journey to officially make them their own.

The children's father, who at one point lived with the Changs for a short period after his wife's funeral, left without saying goodbye to anyone, nor did he leave a forwarding address, the Changs said.

The father could not be contacted for years to even discuss the future of his children. Eventually, in 2011, contact was made with him and he consented to sign a declaration for the adoption of his children.

"On the 25th day of February 1997 when my wife was ill, our daughter went to live with her cousin, Petius Chang and cousin-in-law Janice Chang," Gary Anthony Barrett wrote in the declaration.

"...After her death, our son also went to live with Petius and Janice Chang on the 5th day of May, 1997.

"...My two children have lived with and are being cared for by Petius and Janice Chang ever since and they desire to adopt the two children as their own.

"I hereby give consent to the adoption of my children... to Petius Chang and Janice Chang.

"In light of the death of their mother and the care and control that Mr and Mrs Chang have shown for my children over the past 14 years, I have absolute confidence that they will continue to maintain and bring them up the right and proper way.

"By this declaration I have abandoned all rights to these children and I do so willingly and voluntarily. I make this solemn declaration conscientiously, believing the same to be true and by virtue to the voluntary declarations law," Barrett wrote on June 6, 2011, witnessed by a justice of the peace.

But the declaration, the Jamaica Observer has learnt, was rejected by the Child Development Agency (CDA), which insisted that its form would have to be used instead. That was done and the father eventually signed it over two years ago.

The young man, who went to live with the Changs at age four years, is now 23 and well past the age that he can be legally adopted. But there is still time left for the young woman, who is seven months from her 18th birthday. If the process is not completed by then, she cannot be legally adopted. The only drawback is that even if she is adopted now, the United States authorities will not afford her the normal granting of a US passport as other adopted children of American citizens, since she has passed age 16.

What appeared to be a minor hiccup after Geraldine Barrett's death turned out to be one of the major impediments in the struggle to formalise the process, as an error on the part of the undertakers in New York has proved costly.

Following the application for adoption in 1999, a request for the certificate of death, issued by the New York City Department of Health, was made of the Changs by local authorities.

This would have been accompanied by a letter of consent from the child's biological father, which was written and signed.

However, New York City's Department of Health entered the deceased woman's country of birth as Trinidad, instead of Jamaica, causing local authorities to raise their eyebrows.

Geraldine Barrett's address was listed as 8 Eden Street, New Green, Mandeville, Manchester, Trinidad, and despite efforts to convince those local authorities that an error had been made, the struggle dragged on. Applications to the New York Department of Health to have the error corrected have not been acknowledged with the kind of haste that the Changs think the

matter deserves.

Even the provision of corroborative evidence as proof of Barrett's address before she died could not force the local personnel to move left or right and understand that a simple error had been made by the New York Department of Health.

"I don't know why something like this has to be so problematic. This seems like a straightforward error. There is no 8 Eden Street, New Green, Mandeville, Manchester in Trinidad. There is one in Jamaica and this can be clearly verified, so I don't know what all the fuss is about," Chang told the Sunday Observer.

Lyn's Funeral Home, which handled the local burial, also vouched in an affidavit that nothing was amiss and that the organisation had undertaken the burial of the deceased woman.

"This is to certify that the above establishment received the human remains of Geraldine Barrett on April 23, 1997. Mrs Barrett died in New York, USA. Her remains were interred at the family plot in the district of New Green, Mandeville, Manchester, Jamaica, West Indies on April 26, 1997," read the document signed by Lyn's Business Manager Calvin S Lyn, a former member of parliament.

Justice of the peace, the veteran journalist Ken Jones was one of those who offered character reference for the Changs.

"I have known Mr and Mrs Petius Chang for more than 20 years and am convinced that they are both respectable, responsible persons, both in business and in their personal lives," Jones wrote in an affidavit dated October 30, 2012.

"From my observation they run a well-ordered home and respond to their obligations with prompt efficiency.

"In addition to their own children, they have, by adoption, raised two others from early childhood to high school level; both are well-mannered and academically successful. It is my understanding that they wish to formalise the adoption process and in this regard, I would unhesitatingly attest to their competence and suitability. The satisfactory upbringing of those they adopted is further evidence in support of their application," Jones wrote.

The Changs have spent several years visiting government departments like the Adoption Board; the CDA, which now has overall responsibility for adoptions; the Family Court; police stations; among others, trying to tie up loose ends.

In fact, they made so many visits to the Adoption Board — from the days when it was located on King Street, downtown Kingston — that they were told not to return until the death certificate was corrected.

They did not stop until they got audience with former parliamentarian Marjorie Taylor, whose ministry had responsibility for that department at the time.

After explaining the situation to her, Taylor, the Changs said, promised to look into the matter, but it ended there.

With no other recourse, the Changs set out on the journey to have the death certificate amended as directed by the local authorities. But after several lawyers and hundreds of thousand of dollars spent, the last attorney sent back their file to say that there was nothing more that he could do. The best thing, he felt, would be for them to visit New York to try to have the matter sorted out.

Born in Hong Kong of a Jamaican (Santa Cruz, St Elizabeth) father and Chinese mother, Petius Chang, who served the United States Army between 1967 and 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, was clear in unleashing his frustration with the snail's pace of the entire affair.

"It's been a very frustrating process. I didn't know that it would take so long for an adoption to be completed. This is a country that has encouraged people to adopt children, but too many roadblocks are placed in the way," Chang said.

"I made nine trips from King Street to the Family Court. I tried to adopt the boy as well, but the dragging out of the case was too much and when we finally got to someone from the Adoption Board, he said that he had passed the age for adoption.

"My wife and I have been there for them both on all their birthdays, Christmas time, you name it. There is no difference between them and my four biological children," Chang said.

The young woman was equally unhappy with the process that she believes could affect her future.

"It's very frustrating," she told the Sunday Observer.

"It just really bothers me. I have been living with them for 17 years and they are the mother and father that I know. It is taking way too long, and because it's taking so long it is annoying to me as it is preventing me from fulfilling certain processes," she said.

Petius Chang wants the CDA to step on the accelerator.

"The CDA encourages couples who are childless to adopt, as they will be blessed and be childless no more. It would be good if the CDA changes its policy of red tape and improves on its system," Chang added.

Chief executive officer of the CDA Rosalee Gage Gray was not available when the Sunday Observer contacted the agency, but communications official Prudence Barnes promised to check out the matter.

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