Coach wins biggest battle to bring her daughter home

Joanne Boyle retired from coaching to focus on the adoption of her Senegalese daughter. After seven years of red tape, the adoption of Ngoty Rain Boyle, now 7½ years old, is finally official. Courtesy of Joanne Boyle

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- It took a bout with food poisoning in a hotel room in Senegal before Joanne Boyle could exhale.

The former Virginia women's college basketball coach will not need to schedule a 16th trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

Nor will she plead for another signature from a tribunal official or hold her breath awaiting an approval for an international adoption that consumed much of her life the past decade.

Her daughter, Ngoty Rain Boyle, officially became an American citizen when South African Airways Flight 207 departing Dakar, Senegal, landed at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 30. That concluded a tumultuous saga that had forced Boyle to leave her job with the Cavaliers in March 2018 to focus on an uncompromising immigration system that made adopting an abandoned orphan from Senegal a bureaucratic nightmare.

"It's over," Boyle confirmed to ESPN recently, relieved she will no longer have to navigate hoops far more daunting than any she encountered in a career that included stops at Richmond and Cal before taking over for Debbie Ryan in 2011.

It's a new beginning for a mother who refused to be frustrated by a country lacking modern infrastructure, and for a 7-year-old anxious to return to the only life she knows.

But just a day before they flew home, in a hotel room in Dakar, a dizzy, dehydrated Boyle struggled to keep anything in her stomach. Food poisoning emptied her system.

An umpteenth trip to the toilet left her flat on her back staring at the ceiling -- elated.

"It was 2 o'clock in the morning," Boyle said, "and I'm thinking, 'You are purged of everything. It's all gone. All the setbacks. All the complications and disappointment. You are going home with Ngoty.' It was a cleansing, cathartic, spiritual purging. It was confirmation. After food poisoning, you usually don't feel very good, but I felt completely fine.

"All I could think was, 'There's no way we're not getting on that plane tomorrow. We're going home.' "

Together.

A circuitous seven years

Ngoty, a spirited second-grader at charming Charlottesville Day School, plops down a purple-sequined backpack on the green-top playground. It's 3:30 p.m. and hot. School's dismissed for the day.

"You carry it. Too heavy," she groaned.

"No, you're taking it to the car," Boyle, 55, said in a firm voice that reflects a familiar conversation.

Ngoty holds out her hand, anticipating the orange sucker Boyle pulls from the front pocket of her jeans.

Ngoty's friend Ella wants to show her something down the street. Boyle reminds her daughter they can't be late for an appointment. Boyle totes Ngoty's violin case to the car, while Ngoty lugs her book bag as if it were weighed down by rocks. She detours with Ella until Boyle chides her into returning.

"We can't be late!"

These are battles Boyle has yearned to fight since she first laid eyes on an emailed photo of an infant girl in February 2012. She had known for years she wanted to adopt; after a trip with her Cal team to Africa in 2008, she knew where. Now she knew who.

"Her eyes jumped out at me, and I knew, I can't explain it, that we were supposed to be together," Boyle said.

Vegas' best prognosticator couldn't have forecast what would follow. Boyle set out for Senegal shortly before Christmas in 2012, prepared to bring home the 8-month-old to a nursery fit for a princess.

She returned alone, devastated, informed the paperwork had been lost.

Back to Senegal

Until she could be named legal guardian, Boyle couldn't take Ngoty out of Senegal. Instead, Boyle traveled 4,200 miles one way multiple times to see the little girl, balancing the demands of college coaching with visits to Tambacounda, a dusty city where few foreigners linger, and malaria remains a concern. Inside the orphanage, the children are loved, but conditions are poor. Electricity is spotty. All toys are broken. Ngoty holds no memories of the days when a few fistfuls from a community bowl of rice were her lone sustenance.

After two years of legal haggling, Boyle brought a malnourished Ngoty to Charlottesville two days before Christmas in 2014. Their homecoming made national news. Introduced at a press conference at the University of Virginia, Ngoty charmed reporters by dancing to Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)."

Ngoty thrived in her new home, as a mainstay at basketball practices and in her grandmother's lap behind the bench for Cavalier games.

When Ngoty's visa expired in 2015, Boyle anticipated another layer of bureaucracy. But she didn't expect to have to return to Senegal for months or potentially longer while the U.S. Embassy in Dakar completed consular processing.

"That hit like a ton of bricks," she said at the time.

Nonetheless, Boyle guided the Cavaliers to their first NCAA tournament in seven years. They scored a first-round win, then lost in the second. It was then, in the locker room after they'd been eliminated, that Boyle announced that she was stepping down.

Support poured in nationally. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia pledged his help. Sen. Mark Warner offered the caseworkers on his staff as resources.

"The story was heartbreaking," Warner said. "Here's a woman who was moved to adopt an orphan, wanting to do everything the right way. Our whole immigration process is so confusing -- what's OK and what's not OK.

"It's a shame it took the office of a United States senator to help get this resolved."

U.S. State Department statistics show a 13 percent decline in international adoptions since last year and an 82 percent drop since 2004. A bipartisan bill in the Senate would create an independent advisory commission on international adoption to explore that trend.

After months of uncertainty and Department of Homeland Security officials advising that Boyle and Ngoty go back to Senegal and wait there, a legal workaround with the help of Warner's staff proved to be a godsend. One of Boyle's attorneys, Dan Berger, worked out an agreement that allowed mother and daughter to remain in Charlottesville while Ngoty's paperwork for an immigration visa made its way into the embassy pipeline.

Round after round of red tape

The process lagged for a year-plus. Officials tried twice to fingerprint Boyle's mother, Joan, now 83, as part of the investigative process.

"They didn't take. They say older people lose their fingerprints over time," Joanne says. "They settled with us doing police clearances in the states where she has lived."

Last fall, another of Boyle's attorneys, Irene Steffas of Georgia, finally secured all approvals for the paperwork to be sent to Senegal. At the end of July, Boyle got word that she could make an appointment with the embassy in Dakar for a final check.

Ngoty wasn't pleased about the trip to Africa in mid-August.

"She was mad that she was missing the first three days of school," Boyle said. "She said, 'The first three days are the fun things at school and after that, it's all work. I'm missing the fun.'"

Ngoty balked when a medical exam forced her to give a blood sample. When results confirmed her good health, all that remained was the embassy check where Ngoty would be given an immigrant visa, and updating her Senegalese passport with her legal name, Ngoty Rain Boyle. To return to the United States, Ngoty's passport, visa and airline ticket needed to match.

Another round of red tape added an unexpected wrinkle.

Officials told Boyle a recent law required Ngoty to have a certificate of citizenship from Senegal before being issued a new passport. In essence, two weeks before she was to become an American citizen, she had to prove she was a citizen of Senegal.

"They would not accept her birth certificate," Boyle said. "I had every document you can possibly imagine with me. They would not accept anything but a certificate of citizenship."

They had to go back to Tambacounda, where Ngoty was born, a nine-hour car ride away on a road lacking a speed limit. Along the way, small markets lined the roadside with women carrying water or groceries on their heads while supporting babies on their backs.

Ngoty faded in and out of sleep, her eyes drawn to the red dirt and sickly animals. "She mentioned that the animals were so much skinnier," Boyle said. "Seeing children as young as 5 or 6 begging in the streets for a little bit of change for the day caught Ngoty's attention."

Upon arrival, Boyle arranged to meet with Senegal's tribunal president of children. He verified that Ngoty had indeed been born in Senegal.

"But he had no authority to provide an official certificate of citizenship," Boyle said.

The lead tribunal president held that authority but was vacationing. No one could help. Somewhere along the line, an official suggested Boyle go home while Ngoty remained.

"Hell no," Boyle responded.

One final hurdle

Returning to Dakar, Boyle and Ngoty walked into the U.S. Embassy seeking assistance. Embassy officials had never heard of a child needing a certificate of citizenship to update a passport. But they had no authority to interfere.

"I was told this should be the easiest part of the process, and I started to get a little frantic," Boyle said. "I didn't know how we were going to get back to the U.S."

Steffas and Warner's office suggested a fresh approach. Ngoty's old passport was in hand, valid until December. She could still travel on a Senegalese passport with her immigrant visa and finish all the processing back in the United States.

Embassy officials needed time to explore that option -- only there wasn't much of it. It was Wednesday. Mother and daughter had a flight to return to Virginia on Sunday -- or so Boyle thought.

"I pulled out my airline tickets and happened to see that they read Thursday, as in the next day," Boyle said.

In a panic, she reached out to the airlines. The Sunday flight was sold out. What did she want to do?

Purchasing a next-day, one-way ticket was a gamble. The embassy still hadn't given her the go-ahead that they'd be able to leave by then.

"We have three seats left," the ticket agent said.

Boyle relies on her faith, rarely taking off her silver cross pendent and medal of St. Christopher, which promises to protect the wearer in her travels. She bought the ticket.

At 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, Boyle answered the phone and read an email from the embassy simultaneously. Ngoty could, the embassy verified, fly to the United States using her old passport. The remaining paperwork could be finalized after they got back to Virginia.

Boyle turned to find Ngoty's eyes.

"I've got a surprise," she said. "We're going home tomorrow."

'Full-time mom'

Mingling with the other moms at Charlottesville Day School, a relaxed Boyle maps out weekend playdates for Ngoty, whose first request upon landing was a jug of blue Gatorade. A week after their return, Ngoty is fully immersed in second grade, recounting only the oversized mangos as a positive from the trip.

Someday, Boyle doesn't know when, they will return to Senegal. She wants Ngoty to appreciate her heritage and the culture of the primarily Muslim western African nation, where music, dance and jewelry are cherished.

"But it will be on our terms," Boyle stressed.

She will not coach again, the end of a 25-year career in a profession she loved. Instead, Boyle wants to explore additional volunteer opportunities in Charlottesville. Mostly, she revels in the moments and milestones of motherhood. Ngoty wants voice lessons, just started synchronized swimming, plays soccer and enjoys Victory Church, where she volunteers alongside her mother.

"It's been really fun to throw myself into her world and be able to take her to school every day and pick her up and take her to the places she needs to go," Boyle said. "I'm an older mom. She's already 7. I want to spend time with her. I'm a taxicab driver. And that's what I want to be, a full-time mom."