WASHINGTON — The desperate plight of the Haitian earthquake’s youngest survivors has sparked intense interest in adoptions.
Both U.S. and Haiti-based agencies have been bombarded with offers for help.
But few children will be permitted to leave their country quickly, and newcomers to the process must wait their turn.
When the Archdiocese of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services announced a tentative plan for providing shelter to Haitian orphans, Marie Schouten added her name to the growing list of couples and individuals eager to provide a home for the orphans.
Married for nine years and a cancer survivor, the Catholic special-education teacher couldn’t have children of her own and had prayed about adoption.
Yet, while the televised images of young Haitians stirred her soul, Schouten has since learned that even natural disasters don’t allow prospective parents to bypass the arduous and often expensive process of securing an international adoption.
The U.S. State Department will only fast-track Haitian adoptions with completed paperwork, or those nearing the final phase of the process.
Agencies in Haiti also caution that family reunification efforts and the rebuilding of the country’s shattered infrastructure will lengthen the time required to identify children available for adoption.
Groups concerned about human trafficking also worry that child predators will try to take advantage of the disaster by exploiting abandoned children. Haiti has been a destination for sex tourism.
Schouten understands the need for caution.
“I was impressed that the Miami Archdiocese wanted to help. It didn’t matter whether we took in a baby or an older girl or boy; we just wanted to offer our home to a child in need,” Schouten said. “Now we’ll have to wait. First, the authorities will try to locate and reunite these children with family members in Haiti.”
In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, the Miami Archdiocese’s plan to aid the orphans quickly made headlines. Television anchors likened the initiative to the Church’s bold “Pedro Pan” effort that relocated Cuban children in the aftermath of the revolution led by Fidel Castro.
The archdiocese has since acknowledged that the proposal still requires government approval and adequate funding.
Meanwhile, the first order of business has been to correct the perception that it will be a Haitian version of Pedro Pan.
“In the 1960s the children that were brought to the United States were voluntarily given over to Msgr. Bryan Walsh from Catholic Charities to get them out of Cuba during a time of political upheaval; the idea was for the children to be reunited with their parents at some point or with other family members,” explained Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami. “Currently, the situation in Haiti is far different. Catholic Charities is prepared to assist in-country Haitian organizations and families by providing temporary shelter in the Archdiocese of Miami for Haitian children who have been identified as at risk.”
A week after the earthquake, Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, announced that two groups of Haitian orphans would be eligible for “humanitarian parole”: “orphaned children who were living in Haiti, for whom the legal adoption process was already completed” and those “already in the process of adoption who have been matched with U.S. adoptive parents, but for whom a final decree has not yet been issued.”
In late January, the U.S government announced that humanitarian parole had already been granted to 500 orphans, several hundred of which had arrived in the United States.
The prospective parents for the latter group, said Napolitano, would be “screened as possible sponsors; if they are eligible, the child will be released to them. If not, the child will be the responsibility of HHS, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Undocumented Minor Program and will be placed with the usual U.S. [adoption] providers.”
Seeking to head off unauthorized evacuations, Napolitano warned that “children who have been transported to the U.S. without prior authorization will be placed in the Undocumented Minors program.”
At present, the focus for both private U.S. agencies and Haiti-based missions that facilitate adoptions is to quickly identify and evacuate children who qualify for “humanitarian parole.” Agosta confirmed, however, that the Miami Archdiocese had not given up a more ambitious plan to “house Haitian children orphaned by the disaster and set up temporary custody arrangements with relatives in the United States.”
Meanwhile, both large agencies like Catholic Charities USA and small, Haiti-based orphanages have struggled to navigate the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake. Many of the Haitian orphanages were founded by Catholic and Christian missionaries. The children under their care — some infants, others much older — have lost their parents or have been abandoned by single mothers unable to care for them.
One such orphanage, God’s Littlest Angels in Petionville, 15 miles outside of Port-au-Prince, orchestrated the evacuation of 87 children within a week of the earthquake.
Aaron Ramsay, a Colorado resident who works in Christian ministry, had arrived in Haiti on a chartered 737 that brought supplies for the orphanage.
“The orphanage wasn’t damaged from the earthquake, but we worried about the aftershocks,” he said.
When God’s Littlest Angels received approval to evacuate a group of children to the U.S., Ramsay joined his newly adopted sons — 27-month-old twins, Ethan and Brecken — for a trip to the U.S. Embassy and then on to a chartered flight to the Miami airport. There, medical personnel and volunteers delivered the children, ranging from infants to early adolescents, to their adoptive parents.
Thrilled to have the twins at home with his wife, Tanya, Ramsay says the couple will always “honor” the children’s mother who, unable to care for them, dropped the boys off at the orphanage in December 2008.
But he worries that the collapse of the government administration in Haiti’s capital could drastically delay future adoptions during a time of grave crisis. “The day we flew out, a 24-day-old baby was abandoned at the orphanage,” he recalled.
In fact, the Ramsays were united with their Haitian children much more rapidly than most couples who have signed on to adopt a child from the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation.
“In the past, the problem was that the whole infrastructure created delays,” said Janet Bonnema, executive director of Children of the Promise, a spacious Cap-Haitien “crèche” founded in 2000 that rehabilitates very young children and facilitates U.S. adoptions for some of them.
“We have had kids with completed dossiers sit in the equivalent of Haitian social services for a year or more. Haiti didn’t have a computerized record system: Everything was handwritten and filed in a centralized system,” said Bonnema.
Yet, despite the routine delays, in recent years Haiti gradually attracted more Americans looking to begin a family, in part because other countries had begun to discourage foreign adoptions.
Children of the Promise provides intensive medical and therapeutic intervention for malnourished children and others with special needs. At present, an American couple, Jamie and Jenny Groen, supervise the crèche. The Groens also are in the process of adopting three children, but they will not even try to bring them back to their Midwest home any time soon; their children did not yet qualify for humanitarian parole.
‘We Have a Lot of Hope’
Now that the quake has destroyed the paperwork and passports for children who have completed the adoption process, Children of the Promise — like many small programs run on a shoestring budget through donations — is even struggling to evacuate children with approved files.
“We’re trying to get 21 adopted children out,” said Bonnema with a measure of frustration. “There is no alternative infrastructure, and we don’t know how we will process the adoptions.”
Still, she remains optimistic, a job requirement in her field: “We have a lot of hope. I just heard that a 10-year-old boy who came from Children of the Promise to the U.S. was fundraising for us after the earthquake. When he arrived as an infant, he was severely malnourished. Now he is doing well. What we’re telling people is: Keep your applications on file.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.