HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - Marsha Sailors painted the nursery pink and green at her Missouri home, put up princess pictures and built a crib for her new little girl. They hadn't yet met, but she already was in love with the smiling 6-month-old in a photo sent from Vietnam.
Three birthdays have since passed, but the child has never slept in the room or worn the clothes hanging in the closet.
Sailors and her husband visited the girl they named Claire a combined nine times in unsuccessful attempts to bring her home, and now are barred from any further contact.
Instead, Claire remains stuck inside a decaying Vietnamese orphanage along with 15 other kids who also have American families waiting to adopt them. Their cases went into bureaucratic limbo in 2008 when Washington suspended its adoption agreement with Vietnam over broad suspicions of fraud and baby selling.
"I just can't spend a lot of time in her room because it's just so sad," said Sailors, from Kansas City, who celebrated the past two Christmases at the orphanage in southern Bac Lieu province with her husband Chuck before authorities barred the visits in January.
"We're just longing to bring her home because otherwise her future ... I can't go very far down that road before my heart starts to break," she said.
Most of the adoptions already in the pipeline went forward under exceptions to the 2008 moratorium, but paperwork problems delayed the Bac Lieu cases. Vietnam now says it hopes to join the international Hague Convention on adoptions in October and that the pending cases must start over under those tighter rules, which bar prospective parents from even seeing the children until everything is finalized.
Some families blame the U.S. State Department for the hold up, arguing it has pressured Vietnam so hard to impose stricter regulations that their cases ended up getting stuck. They're now hoping for exemptions and have gained some leverage: Two U.S. senators have blocked President Barack Obama's pick for the new U.S. ambassador to Vietnam over the issue.
"If the Department of State can get a killer out of Pakistan, I think they can manage to get 16 unwanted orphans out of Vietnam," said Matthew Long of Merritt Island, Fla., referring to the U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He is waiting for the release of 4-year-old Ava. "They just need some help finding that will."
The orphanage is a two-room former prison deep in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Couples had rotated visits there before January, each time taking food, milk, clothes and toys for the children who otherwise receive very little.
They brought video cameras to capture the moments and document the changes every parent yearns to see. With no shared language, they communicated using hugs and kisses.
Since then, photos sent by other visitors reveal that the children have lost weight.
Three Florida families have enlisted the help of Sen. Marco Rubio, who a placed hold on the ambassador nominee after Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar lifted a similar block. Rubio has concerns over the State Department's handling of the "long-delayed adoptions," said his spokesman Alex Burgos.
In 2007, 828 babies went home with American families, including actress Angelina Jolie's adoption of a 3-year-old boy. That was up from 163 the year before.
Washington ended the joint agreement in September 2008 after a spike in the number of abandoned babies, raising concerns about whether the children truly were voluntarily given up by their birth parents as U.S. law requires.
Months earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam reported evidence of fraud, bribery, kidnapping and outright baby-selling for adoptions that can cost more than $20,000. Washington had previously halted an agreement in 2003 over similar concerns, and resumed it three years later after safeguards were supposedly put in place.
After the 2008 suspension, most of the 534 cases already being processed were resolved and the children were allowed to leave. But officials put the brakes on Bac Lieu cases because irregularities were uncovered, including wrong birth mothers' names on paperwork, according to Keith Wallace, director of Families Thru International Adoption, the Indiana agency brokering the adoptions.
He said they reinvestigated most of the cases and fired a staffer who had taken "short cuts."
In one case, a baby who already was matched with an American family was returned to its birth mother because her financial situation had improved after she married, he said. In other cases, the agency obtained DNA samples and new paperwork from birth mothers stating they knowingly gave up their babies, Wallace added.
"Nobody doubts that these kids are orphans. Nobody," said Kelly Ensslin, a North Carolina lawyer representing two families. In 2008, she spent 10 weeks in Vietnam fighting to get her own adopted daughter out.
"It's full of so much drama, and it's sadly on the backs of these kids," she said.
Alison Dilworth, adoptions division head at the U.S. Office of Children's Issues, said Washington has pressed Vietnam's Communist government to release the children, but that officials there have refused to provide information on why they rejected the cases.
"We've made it very, very clear that we want them to move forward on these cases, and I can understand why the parents are absolutely frustrated," Dilworth said.
She denied that Washington's push for Vietnam to join the Hague Convention was to blame for the hold up, saying the adoption agency may have raised false hopes that these cases were still moving forward.
"I think they told a lot of their clients that it was the big, bad U.S. government that was stopping things, when in reality, we've never had a chance to even take a look at these cases," she said by phone from Washington.
Vietnam prohibited The Associated Press from traveling to the orphanage, and adoption officials in Bac Lieu province declined to comment.
In a written response to questions from the AP, Vietnam's Adoptions Department said all 16 cases are ineligible for processing under the old system and will go forward under the new Hague rules expected to be adopted Oct. 1. The toddlers will first be put up for adoption within Vietnam. If no one comes forward, they can then be paired with foreign families. A process that will take months, at best, if the American families are re-matched with the children.
But Marsha Sailors vows to never give up the fight. She said Claire, whose Vietnamese name is Yen, made a clear connection early on, telling mommy she loved her in her native tongue the first time they met.
She is desperate not to let the child she considers her own to be abandoned for a second time in her short life.
"I realize she doesn't yet understand fully the love between a mother and child, but to me, this interaction, at her own initiative, tells me that she understands the bond that we have," Sailors said. "And she knows that she is ours."