Jill Lear has decorated bedrooms waiting for the 9-year-old boy and girl she calls her son and daughter even though she hasn’t brought them home from Haiti. Kim Lewen wants to wrap her arms around the two smiling girls she left at an orphanage last fall with a promise to return.
Though both know their children are safe after the magnitude-7 earthquake that devastated Haiti this week, what they don’t know is when they’ll be able to proceed with their dream of bringing the children to the United States. They fear for their children’s safety in the days to come, and that their months-long effort to adopt the children could be stalled by the chaos.
“I have this bed sitting there with a doll and a teddy bear, and little pink daisies, and she is in an orphanage with 150 kids without water tonight,” said Lear, of Watertown, S.D.
The earthquake has thrown U.S. adoptive families into a state of limbo. Many are finding themselves mired in a desperate search for answers about how their children are faring. Some fear paperwork – which can take months or years to finalize – may be buried or lost forever in crumpled buildings, stalling the adoption process for good.
Adoptions from Haiti make up a fraction of international adoptions to the United States each year, but the number has been growing steadily as countries such as China and Guatemala have slowed or closed to international adoption in recent years. The U.S. State Department issued 330 immigrant visas to Haitian children last year, up from 96 in 1999.
In the eyes of the Haitian government, many of those waiting to bring children home are already legal parents. Adoptions are finalized in Haiti, but it can still take months for final approval to bring the children home to the United States.
Even those who haven’t completed the Haitian adoption process may have already met the children they hope to call their own. Unlike other countries, Haiti matches prospective parents and orphans early in the adoption process, so families have photographs for months, said Heather Breems, Haiti coordinator and international supervisor for Adoption-Link in Oak Park, Ill.
“It’s what makes a situation like this so difficult for families, because they’ve been matched with children already,” said Breems, whose agency has five families matched or waiting to travel, including a single mother who was supposed to leave this weekend to bring home her HIV-positive daughter.
Brett Schlenbaker and his wife, Kendra, of Bellingham, Wash., are in the process of adopting two children, an 8-year-old daughter, Dejennika, and her 6-year-old brother, Djouvensky. They had already met them, and hoped to bring them home next month.
“You just don’t know what’s going on with your child,” said Schlenbaker. “Are they hurt, are they injured, are they safe? It’s any parent’s fear.
Adoption advocates met Thursday in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to discuss the quake’s impact on adoptions. Many parents have been pushing to see if the State Department can expedite adoption proceedings, because they fear orphanages will need to serve other children left homeless or alone after the quake.
Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption, said the experts agreed that efforts should be made to expedite proceedings for the relatively small number of U.S. families whose adoptions were nearly complete. But there almost certainly will be substantial delays in most of the roughly 900 pending adoption applications because of the chaos in Haiti, including widespread loss of essential documents.
“Many of the orphanages have probably been damaged, records lost,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult to proceed with intercountry adoption in the imminent future.”
State department officials did not return a request seeking comment Thursday
Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, said his group would be setting up a Web-based registry through which families could try to get information about the Haitian children they hoped to adopt.
“Once we compile that data, we can determine which cases we might be able to speed up,” he said. “The important thing is the status of the kids – are they OK?”
The immediate focus is on the safety of the children and providing emergency relief, he said. Adoption is “part of the plan, but it’s not the priority today,” DiFilipo said. “The devastation is just phenomenal. We have a lot of work to do before we can move forward with the adoptions.”
That leaves parents in the U.S. filled with worry about what comes next. Lear and her husband Bruce had visited their 9-year-old Hatian children, Pierre and Ange-Laurette, twice. They had planned a third visit, which is now on hold because of the earthquake.
They learned the children were OK about 10 minutes after the earthquake, just before cell phone signals went down across Haiti. But they’ve since received reports that conditions are worsening.
Lewen, 40, of Willowbrook, Ill., knows the two young sisters she is adopting are safe – for now.
The single parent-to-be started the adoption process in September and visited 1-year-old Sandina and 3-year-old Benciana in October.
“I felt like the luckiest person in the world,” she said. “I got there on a Monday and Wednesday night I was so in love with them that I couldn’t sleep.”
She learned by e-mail Wednesday afternoon that the girls were safe. Now she, too, is hoping for an emergency visa to get the girls out of the orphanage to make room for other children orphaned by the earthquake.
“I need them to be here to be safe. I want them to know they have food and that they are not at risk of disease and they are not terrified,” she said. “I can’t imagine how terrified they are.”