Adopting Jesús, Chapter V: “He's my kid. Nobody believes me”

In this episode our heroes dive into the Upside Down of Venezuelan Bureaucracy to rescue a name

Illustration by Platanohay

It was November 25, 2022, eight years after Jesús had marched out of the orphanage. That was the day it happened: a judge issued a final ruling that he was legally our son. 

But it was not the triumphant moment we’d hoped for. I’d watched the hearing on a grainy WhatsApp video call because I’d moved to Miami a year earlier. Jesús, like most things related to the adoption process, couldn’t care less. “I don’t even know what the point of this hearing is,” reads his comment to the judge as noted in the sentence. Isabel was excited about reaching this milestone but immediately realized that the job wasn’t done. A court ruling alone will not convince a state agency, a passport office, or a border protection official that the child standing next to you is your kid. 

The judge’s order had always seemed to us like the finish line of the adoption process, but there was still a big sprint ahead.

“It’s like you have the papers, but you don’t have the papers,” she later told me. Jesús needed a passport, but she had to chase down five separate documents first. We wanted him to start school in DC in August, but had no idea if we could get everything in time. The clock was ticking. 

The judge’s order had always seemed to us like the finish line of the adoption process, but there was still a big sprint ahead. In any adoption, a new birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parents’ name on it. (I’m probably one of the few Stranger Things fans who vividly remembers the moment Hopper gets a birth certificate making El(even) his daughter). 

We needed a birth certificate for Jesús Gabriel Ellsworth Tovar. But Venezuela’s state institutions knew him by his birth name – Jesús Alaín Castro Ríos.

There could only be one.

Isabel would spend months trying to solve the problem of Jesús’ paper doppelganger. She sent text messages and voice notes to more officials than she could keep track of. She convinced a receptionist to help her sneak into a tribunal room that a judge had told her she wasn’t allowed in. And she spent weeks hunting down a critical court document that kept disappearing: the judge’s order to eliminate Jesús’ original birth certificate.  She’d seen this document once, but it got buried inside a case file that was lost somewhere in the court system.  

She made repeated trips to the child and family tribunal in downtown Caracas, an institution known by the unwieldy acronym LOPNNA. She chatted up a lawyer in the court lobby who hand wrote an official request for the document on a piece of scratch paper. Weeks ticked by and the document never appeared. When she finally got into the archive and found the case file, this document had been removed. “It was absolute anguish,” she said. “I kept asking myself ‘Does that document really exist? Did I dream that?” The next time she went back to court, not only was this crucial document gone – the entire case file had vanished. In the archive they told her it was in one of the tribunals. The tribunal told her they didn’t have it. 

It was a full three months after the judge’s ruling that court officials finally tracked down the infamous document. Isabel made the drive to Ocumare, where I’d chauffeured the bailiff around all those years earlier. But the woman at the municipal registry would turn out to be one of the few public officials who intentionally made our lives difficult.

“I’m not sure, I’ll have to ask someone at the elections council about this,” she told Isabel, who managed to hold her tongue while her eyes bulged out. This woman was literally refusing a judge’s order. Isabel spent another month smiling at the right people while furiously lobbying in the background.

Four months after the adoption was ordered, the new birth certificate was issued, with two neighbors from the building joining Isabel as witnesses. I wasn’t in Caracas. Jesús didn’t feel like going. Mejor me quedo en casa, he’d said.

Isabel had gotten us across the line. We were now regular parents who could prove custody of our kid with a single piece of paper. That paved the way for her to get him a Venezuelan ID and a passport with his new name. We’d navigated the labyrinth of Venezuelan bureaucracy.

Chapter I: Finding Joy In a Hopeless Place
Chapter II: He Called Me “Papá”
Chapter III: Suing My Son’s Mother
Chapter IV: They Made the Adoption Possible
Chapter VI: Immigrating to Lady Liberty
Epilogue: Becoming Gringozuelan

Brian Ellsworth

Brian Ellsworth with a Washington based journalist and communications advisor. He spent 18 years in Venezuela, principally as a correspondent for Reuters.