No mass airlift of Haitian orphans to U.S., at least for now
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — For countless children in Haiti, home is now a parking lot, a tent, or a foxhole dug amid earthquake debris. A few lucky orphans among them had prior permission to leave for new homes in the United States, and some have been doing so this week.
For other Haitian boys and girls, though, the decision seems to have been made that for the moment, they are better off staying in their disaster-shocked and impoverished homeland, even if their parents may now be dead, than being airlifted to new adoptive families in South Florida or elsewhere.
"What's really needed by children in Haiti is emergency help where they are," said Chris de Bono, chief of media in New York for UNICEF. The United Nations' children's rights organization and other major relief agencies operating in Haiti have objected to a proposal by the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami to airlift thousands of children out.
Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said U.S. rescue and relief efforts "must be vigilant not to separate children from relatives in Haiti who are still alive but displaced, or to unknowingly assist criminals who traffic in children in such desperate times."
Conditions, however, could change. UNICEF, the American Red Cross, Save the Children and other aid groups have begun registering boys and girls who appear to have been orphaned by the Jan.12 quake, which may have claimed 200,000 lives.
The organizations have been logging the names, photos, locations and other identifying information of children whose parents have disappeared. Next, the agencies will try to trace their relatives.
"Only after it's clear that every good faith effort was made to find their families is adoption or foster care considered," de Bono said.
Meanwhile, aid organizations have set up several "safe spaces" around the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince, where children can find food, medical care and safe shelter.
One Virginia-based advocacy group that works with international adoption agencies said the situation for many youngsters in Haitian orphanages has become precarious. Even if the children had already been cleared for adoption in the United States, it now may take repeated and risky runs to the American embassy and Port-au-Prince airport to get them on U.S.-bound planes.
"It's not safe," said Thomas DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, the advocacy group. "Gangs are making people pay to use roads, to get past checkpoints. Children are dehydrated. You have a really horrific situation."
DiFilipo's organization wants to set up a "safe haven" near the U.S. Embassy and airport — with food, water, health care and security — for children separated from their parents or children in orphanages that now lie in ruins. But the request has met with bureaucratic resistance, he said.
"We have children living, literally, in parking lots, on the grass, in completely unsafe environments," he said.
Supplies are delivered to orphanages only to have gangs loot them. Said DiFilipo: "We've had children die of dehydration simply because we couldn't get water to them."
Before the earthquake, there were 187 licensed orphanages in Haiti, each with about 100 children, and about another 200 smaller non-licensed facilities, according to the Joint Council on International Children's Services.
Adoptions from Haiti prior to last week's catastrophe were notoriously long and challenging, tied up by revolving regimes and natural calamities — floods, hurricanes and mudslides — that created even more orphans. Only several hundred children from Haiti have been adopted into U.S. homes in each of the past couple years, according to the State Department.
As for Americans who have been waiting, in some cases for many years, to adopt a child from Haiti, some are now rushing to South Florida to meet airplanes bearing the boy or girl previously cleared for them. Children with dual citizenship are also flying in from Haiti with parents or other relatives. On Tuesday alone, about 60 children from Haiti registered or tried to register in the Miami-Dade School District, one administrator said.
Jerry Lowenstein and his wife, from Pompano Beach, Fla., waded through six years of red tape to adopt Yoldine, now 7, finally flying to Port-au-Prince earlier this week to collect her. After arriving in Florida, the girl had what was only her second dip in a bathtub in a lifetime.
And she was carefully coming to terms with the household dog, Petey. In Haiti, dogs are viewed as outdoor beasts that kill goats and are not to be touched. "She's a little repulsed," Lowenstein said Wednesday, but noted that otherwise, Yoldine is skipping and singing and playing hide-and-seek in her new home.
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.