Monday, November 17, 2014

Whirlwind Day

My head is spinning from one of the most frenetic days I have ever spent in Haiti!

 In the morning, Margarette and I reported back to the Consulate to discuss a few challenging cases with DOS and USCIS.  USCIS directed me to this notice, of which I had been completely unaware!

 I expressed my concerns regarding security for families adopting from crèches with which we are not familiar that are far enough from Port-au-Prince that families will be staying in unfamiliar lodgings.  It’s something we’ll all have to consider carefully.

 We then proceeded to IBESR to discuss the same challenging cases with Mme. Villedrouin and Me. Paul Cadet, one of the examining attorneys for the PAP bar association.  He’s trying to help a few families with similar difficulties.  Our meeting became rather – er – energetic as Me. Cadet and a lower level IBESR bureaucrat discussed the law versus procedure, but as usual Mme. Villedrouin came through on the side of child welfare and the law.  I believe that our stuck families will exit IBESR at last, after a delay of well over year for most of them.  Hallelujah!  I’m not sure if it was persistence or stubbornness, but I think we’re going to win this round.

 In a second and much less challenging meeting, the Chief Legal Counsel of IBESR conveyed a few important facts.  IBESR will eventually have a database of ‘hard to place’ children.  Agencies will be able to search for and recruit families for these children.  Naturally, IBESR will make the final determination if they will approve any family we might recommend for a particular child.  All children who qualify under the Haitian law as having special needs will qualify for the program.  This will allow far more agency and crèche participation in making suggestions of which families might best serve older children, siblings, and those with medical, psychological, or developmental needs.

 The second important change since the full enforcement of the Hague and the new policies issued this summer is that pre-identified child adoption will be even more strongly discouraged for dossiers submitted to IBESR following October 1, 2014.  Unless it is an intrafamilial adoption or a US family has been living in Haiti for an extended period of time and is connected to a child who is legally free for adoption in that way, pre-identified adoptions will generally not be possible.  A possible exception might be a US family who has an adopted child and then a sibling of that child becomes legally free for adoption.

 It has been an exhausting but productive day, an exhausting but productive trip, and I am ready to go home.  Until next time.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Visits


Delia and I visit GLA and NLL up in the mountains.  Nobody should come to Haiti without seeing how amazing the views are on the way up towards Kenscoff!

 Little has changed.  The orphanages offer the best care, the views are beautiful, the people are welcoming, and we’re all so frustrated at the lack of referrals and progress that we don’t know where to turn.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Off The Grid

People who haven’t been here tend to think of all of Haiti as being off the grid, but it’s not at all true.  This is one of the most wired places imaginable.  EVERYONE has a cell phone, and it seems that a great many houses use generators and inverters to ensure that everyone can get online at any moment.

 We start our day at AUBE, where I take pictures.  They’ve actually hung out signs welcoming me like I’m some sort of celebrity.  The funny thing is that the kids remember my name and are thrilled to see me too.  I have no idea why.  I never bring candy or presents, and it seems like an eternity since I brought a photo album and the promise of a family.  But today, I carry hope for several kids.  Albums!  Families!

 The nannies get a huge kick out of one of my adoptive families, who already have three adopted African American children at home and no biological children.  The album has a collage of white Daddy and Mommy and six beautiful little brown people surrounding them.  This is one family that has already been there, done that with interracial adoption.  Now they’ll get to experience international, older sibling group adoption.  Three Haitian siblings will have a family again at last.  The family will arrive for their socialization period the day that I leave, which is a shame.  I’d love to be here when they figure out just how amazingly blessed they truly are by the oldest boy in particular.  I have a feeling he’s going to grow up to be someone very special.

 We are met at AUBE by a professional chauffer in a brightly painted taxi.  Today, Delia and I will be traditional tourists!  I’ve never been to Mirebalais before, so this will be an adventure for me too.  Delia has gotten us an invitation, so off we go.

 The road over the mountain is in excellent condition.  I can see huge improvements in the infrastructure of Haiti since I started coming here almost eleven years ago.  Our ride is long, but quite smooth.  After the usual confusion of locating the exact address, we arrive at Haiti Children’s Home.  The crèche is managed by an American woman and her Haitian husband.  They have a large building, but concerns about its structural stability have caused them to move all sleeping and play areas to a smaller building and various temporary structures.  The facilities are worn and unattractive, and I can tell in about two minutes of watching happy children and loving nannies that this is a top-notch child care facility.  Kids don’t care about matching curtains or fresh paint.  They care about having toys and stimulation and love and attention, and this place radiates those things.  We meet several children with significant special needs who are here long term, and a few who are short-timers.

 Haiti Children’s Home is another fine example of an American run organization that is doing a whole lot more help than harm.  They put great focus on family preservation through their milk program and medical help for families.  There are two American nurses who live there to help their own kids and the community at large.  The director, Lori, serves us a very American and really delicious meal of baked pasta, and then we’re off to see their new facility.

 She tells me she feels like they’re moving to the Hilton, and moment after arriving I can see why.  This is what it looks like if you do it right from day one, with excellent funding.  Haiti Children’s Home has purchase a large tract of land – I’m going to guess around twenty acres – and walled it off.  Inside their compound, they’re building the next best thing to home for a child.

 The compound is powered by an amazing state of the art solar power system.  These guys are going to be truly off the grid, with no reliance on diesel for generators either.  They have their own well, and the site manager tells me the wires that marched over the mountains on our drive here are actually high speed internet cable.  Unbelievable!   HCH is going to have complete solar power, a walk-in freezer, a mechanic training center, an irrigated garden to produce all of their own vegetables, and screaming fast internet.  I’m about ready to move in!

 The kids will live in cottage style homes.  I conclude with Lori that many studies have already shown that this model is the best we can do for children living outside of family care.  The cottages are beautiful, spacious houses arranged around a central play area and kitchen, and I suspect that this will end up being one of the best orphanages in Haiti.  Not only will HCH do everything they can to keep a family intact and avoid taking in a child, but if they have no other option, the children will suffer as little damage as possible growing up with stable caretakers in a beautiful, safe, peaceful environment.  I sure wish all the children living away from their families in Haiti could be so lucky.

 If I suddenly disappear off the grid, I guess everyone will know where to look for me…

Friday, November 14, 2014

Various Firsts


First thing in the morning Franck and I go down to the airport to pick up my friend and colleague Delia Ramsbotham, Managing Director of Sunrise Adoption Services out of BC Canada.  This is her first trip to Haiti, and we’re going to have a blast.  Plus, since I’m in the car, I know that her ride will be there to pick her up on time.  She’s one of the first people off the plane, so we are back at the guesthouse in record time.

 Delia’s always game for an adventure, so we head up to BRESMA right away.  I give her the grand tour, assisted by a child whose name is Luke but whom we all call ‘Ti President’, because he’s earned the name.  The kid will make an amazing politician or ambassador someday.

 We just finish our tour when one of the nurses calls me, saying IBESR is here and asking for me.  I am completely bewildered, but I hustle downstairs.

 There I find Mme. Jean from IBESR.  She is the lone IBESR social worker who has been assigned to cover all socialization reports for visits occurring within Port-au-Prince.  She tells me she wants me to interpret.  I tell her I’m not good enough, and that she should use one of our nannies who is far more bilingual than I am.  Mme. Jean insists she wants me to do it, and I’m not foolish enough to argue.  Fortunately for me she has had formal education in foreign language, so she understands how to use small words or use other words to cover for those that I don’t know.

 I’ve never had the opportunity to see an adoptive parent interview, so this is really good luck!  Mme. Jean begins by explaining to my family that she’s not here to frighten or stress them.  Her duty is to observe them and sign off on their visit, thus fulfilling the legal requirements.  Mme. Jean is a trained social worker, and she explains to me as an aside that she’s more interested in observing the family than she is in what they actually have to say.

 She asks a few basic questions, and several that will help her to ascertain how the family feels about the children.  Meanwhile the kids are expressing what they think with their actions.  They show their comfort with and attachment to their prospective parents with every gesture and behavior.  Mme. Jean asks a few tough questions too, about what the family would do in the event of death or divorce or a serious accident to the children.  She asks a trick question to see if the family will obey the regulations of the new Haitian adoption law regarding the interdiction against contact between the biological and adoptive families, which none of us were expecting.  Fortunately my clients are well-educated about the law and understand the duties of the crèche and the agency in upholding the law, no matter what we feel about it.

 Margarette and I are supposed to have a meeting at IBESR this afternoon, so we have to hurry out the door the moment the interview is over.  I eat on the run like an American, and they Margarette and I are off to complete multiple stops and errands before our appointment meeting time.

 First we go by the Justice complex, to Parquet court.  The Dean of Port-au-Prince has let Margarette know that the Proces Verbal for an abandoned child is complete and legalized.  Thank goodness for the Mayor of Delmas, who seems to care about the abandoned children in his jurisdiction!  After an extensive search, we track down the secretary for the Dean and the precious document is in our hands.  This Proces Verbal is for a little girl who came to BRESMA as an unbelievably fragile and tiny preemie.  Our nurse kept Shaika with her every moment, waking and sleeping, for many months.  Now she is a sturdy toddler, glowing with health.  I pray that she will soon get a referral to a family, now that she is finally legally free for adoption.

 Next we stop by Children’s Court where Margarette checks in with a judge and briefly consults with a biological father who is here to sign a P.V for his daughter.   The mother passed away, and the baby he brought in with his pre-school aged daughter died in the hospital shortly after arriving at BRESMA, too weakened by illness and starvation to survive.  It is a harsh world here.  I am grateful that we have a suitable family for the little girl, and that we can hope for a referral letter for her fairly soon.

 On we go to IBESR, where Margarette visits several departments checking on cases.  We are thrilled to learn that the Director has signed a dossier of a very complicated pre-identified adoption and that Autorisation d’ Adoption has been issued!  It is being entered in the computer system, but I can see it for myself in the hands of the staff member working on it.  On Monday, we can come back and take it out of IBESR at last, free to move through the legal process. 

 We stop by the desk of Me. Nathalie Jean, an attorney who was at the meeting on Friday, where we enter into a lively, er, negotiation regarding whether ABI can submit the dossier of a family in which one parent will turn fifty-one very shortly.  I have to mention the memo IBESR issued this summer, which clearly stated that we have until my clients actual fifty-first birthday to submit the dossier.  She expresses concern about USCIS rejecting the case once it gets there.  I ask her to let me argue about the law with USCIS, because that’s my job.  Except in this case the law is quite clear, and there will be no argument.  She concedes, and we get permission to submit the dossier on Monday.

 Margarette and I wait for over an hour before we are finally told that Me. Guillaume and Mme. Villedrouin will not be able to meet with us – their previous meeting is running very late.  But they do reschedule us for Monday.

 In Haiti, you can have plans, you just can’t have expectations.  However, today certainly surpassed any expectations I might have had!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

One Eye Open

This morning is an adoption round table at the Embassy.  We used to have several of these each year, under the direction of Consul General Donald Moore.  I was very surprised when I was invited to those, and I’m just as honored to have been invited to this one.  Coordinators from two other agencies were also invited, but were unable to come on short notice.

 Most of the participants are Haitian government officials of one kind or another.  We have people from the office of the Mayor of Delmas, the Dean of Port-au-Prince, two of the Children’s Judges, several people from IBESR, Mme. Sawadogo from UNICEF (who is consulting with IBESR on the Hague), the new Consul General, the Vice Consul, the new DOS adoptions officer, and the Chief of USCIS among others.  It’s a large meeting of knowledgeable people.  I have my usual head-shaking moment, wondering how on earth I ended up where I am, because it’s certainly not what I had in mind or asked for.  I guess God puts us where he wants us, and the best we can do is to serve as best we can.

 A translator is available to work between French and English, but as Dixie Bickel and I are the only people in the room who do not speak fluent French and we can both limp along based on our knowledge of Kreyol, we agree to go without in the interests of time management.

 The discussion is lively, sometimes impassioned, and varied.   Because of the composition of the group, much of the conversation centers on the details and execution of Haitian law.  I am very interested to hear what is said, but I imagine not many others would be.

 It is only after the meeting that Margarette mentions something that Mme. Villedrouin said that is very relevant to everything from here on, which I misunderstood due to my lack of skill in French.  I had heard that a crèche director would be on the matching committee.  But what she actually said was that the director of the crèche at which the child lives would be a part of the committee that matches him!  If this is the case, Haiti will not be using a double blind system after all!  One of those making the matches will know the child well and therefore be able to represent his best interests in a way that no stranger ever could.

 I’m still not crazy about doing it this way, but if the crèche directors have some control over what becomes of the children they know and love, I can live with that.

 I feel like a limp dishrag after the meeting.  I have to go back on Monday for another one, just me and some US officials on some difficult cases that I have, but that one should be a lot less stressful and it will be in English which will make things a lot easier.

 I had planned to go up to BRESMA this afternoon, but Margarette goes to the office of the Judge for Children to pick up a Proces Verbal for an abandoned child.  The mayor of Delmas is a doer.  Not only is he paving most of the streets in Delmas, he was the first mayor in Haiti to hustle over to the offices of the Judges for Children to sign relinquishments for the little ones abandoned in his jurisdiction.  So I get to witness Margarette adding the final signature to what might be the first completed Proces Verbal for an abandoned child in Haiti.  We’ll take it with us to IBESR tomorrow.  S. has been at BRESMA for almost two years.  She arrived as a malnourished, desperately fragile premature baby, and now she’s a sturdy little chunker.  May she say her first words elsewhere.

 It has been an exhausting transition for everyone, but I truly believe that we’re getting somewhere at last.  Getting some traction and referrals and forward movement.  Thank goodness!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bittersweet

Arrive in Port – au – Prince on time at 9:10 am, where I am suddenly reminded of all the reminders I have read and even one that I wrote about the tourist tax.  Ten dollars per person upon entry into Haiti!  Good thing they asked at the beginning of the trip, as I tend to leave any extra money I have with me behind to be used, and fly home with empty pockets.  Better keep a few bucks with me this time, or I may end up a permanent resident if they charge again on my way out!

 I leave the airport and am immediately found by my personal deaf and mute porter.  But at this point it doesn't matter that he is deaf.  I've become quite fond of him and wouldn't tell him to go away anyways, which is how I ended up with him in the first place.  After I aggressively chased the other porters away in Kreyol a few years back, they brought me Wadner, who can't hear anyone telling him that they don't want and won't pay for his help.  So now he's my guy.  He's always here at the airport to meet me.
 
Franck, on the other hand, is NOT here to meet me.  Franck will be late to his own funeral.  One of these days he's going to show up on time to get me and I'm going to faint and hit my head, so maybe it's a good thing that I have the most reliably tardy driver in Haiti.

I have a family staying at the guest house on their socialization trip, so I get to meet them as soon as I arrive.  After just a few moments they’re off to the orphanage.  I stay behind to meet with Margarette.  We’re trying to figure out how to get our work done within the constraints laid down by IBESR.  I can see work arounds for the actual legal processing for cases, but I have no idea about how she or any other crèche director who insists on keeping children according to high standards will get by.  The IBESR required childcare charge of $6300 simply isn’t enough to care for kids at the standard each one of them deserves.  We are both frustrated and worried at the end of our talk, with no real solutions in sight.

 After lunch, I join my adopting family at BRESMA.  The crèche and kids look great, and as usual they are all happy to see me (except for several of our babies and toddlers, who are not my biggest fans.)  But the whole experience feels bittersweet to me today.  This is what I came to Haiti to do in the first place.  I wanted to get to know and love individual children, and search for the right family to raise them.  I’ll be able to do so for the children before me now because I have dossiers waiting that we submitted before October 1st, but what about the next ones?  And the ones after that?  Will it even be worth getting to know them here, at the crèche that is my second home, if we’ll have no say at all in where they end up?  I feel blessed to have five or six little people clamoring for my attention all at once, distracting me from maudlin thoughts.  Change is hard, especially when I’m not at all sure that it is a good change.

 One true blessing – the little girl who has asked me on each of my last few trips why no one wants her and her brother has more important questions for me today, like whether her adoptive family who is here visiting has any more candy.  Now there’s a question that I can answer immediately for her.  Yes, my dear one, your mama blan has candy and hugs for you, and yes, some one wants and loves you and your brother very much.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Grave Misstep

On September 24th, a delegation from the Joint Council of International Children’s Services met with IBESR to discuss in detail the IBESR memo issued on August 14th, 2014.  On Friday, Joint Council released their official report on that meeting.

The following policies/procedures came into effect on October 1st, 2014:

Relinquishment procedures:
By law, all children must be declared legally free for adoption by the Juvenile Court before a referral can be issued.  Parental rights will be legally terminated prior to the adoptive family being referred to the child.

 Biological parents will be able to come into IBESR offices other than just the main center in Port-au-Prince for at least the first of their three required interviews.  Those interviews are as follows:

1.      General interview – topics of adoption in general, children’s rights, and protection are discussed.
2.      Individual family interview with a social worker to discuss reunification options and why the biological family is seeking an adoption plan.  Family preservation is emphasized and encouraged.
3.      Individual family interview with a psychologist.  Again, family preservation is emphasized and encouraged.
4.      Legal relinquishment/consent in court before the Juvenile (Children’s Court) Judge for their jurisdiction.  The document produced is called the Proces Verbal, and it terminates the biological family’s parental rights. 

Abandonment procedures:
There is some vagueness in the new law as to how a child can be ascertained to be legally abandoned.  However, in abandonment cases, the mayor of the child’s birth place will need to sign a relinquishment before the Juvenile Judge for that jurisdiction.  If there is no Juvenile Judge, the mayor will have to come to Port-au-Prince to sign in person.
 
We expect to see the first Proces Verbal for an abandoned child completed within the next few weeks.

Fees:
On August 14th, IBESR released a memo that detailed the allowable fees for adoptions.  You can read a translation here: http://www.allblessings.org/download/IBESRMemoAugust14_2014.pdf.

 All aspects of fees on the Haitian side are closely regulated.  There are two changes of note:

1.      All families whose dossiers were not submitted prior to October 1, 2014, will need to pay IBESR and additional $1,100 upon acceptance of a referral.  We are not yet sure if families whose dossiers were submitted prior to October 1st, 2014 will be required to pay the new fee upon receiving a referral after October 1st.  We will clarify this point when possible.
2.      Child care costs have been set at $6300 US.  This is problematic, as each of our partners and multiple other crèches with high quality child care have independently come up with the exact same cost to care for a child - $7500. 
Matching of families and referrals:

For all dossiers submitted to IBESR prior to October 1, 2014:
IBESR has indicated that they will consider suggestions from crèche directors and others with actual knowledge of the children.

For dossiers submitted after October 1st, 2014:
Families whose dossiers that were not submitted and issued a receipt from IBESR prior to October 1st, 2014, will be referred in one of two ways, depending upon the expressed abilities/desires of the family as regards adopting a child defined as being ‘hard to place’, or special needs.

 Under Haitian law, the definition of special needs is as follows:

 Special needs children:
are considered children with behavior troubles or suffering from a trauma, or having a physical or mental incapacity, or being older than 6 or are members of a sibling group.

 If your family is not approved to adopt a child/children who qualify as special needs, your dossier will be matched by a committee. 

 IBESR intends to create a referral committee, which will consist of professionals of various disciplines, who will analyze the dossiers of prospective adoptive families and waiting children.  The committee will make referral recommendations.  Children from any crèche could be referred to any family working with any agency.  IBESR stated that they intend to form the committee in ‘early 2015’, but it is not yet in existence.

 The committee matching system is used in a number of Hague countries.  Depending upon its constitution and frequency of meeting, it can be more or less effective in creating quality referrals for children.

 If your family is approved to adopt a child/children who meet the definition of special needs as described above, there will be  a new referral procedure as well.

 IBESR intends to contact Adoption Service Providers who have indicated that they have experience placing children with special needs and ask they that help with advocating and recruiting for adoptive families for these identified children. 

 A family and their agency will be able to submit a letter of intent to IBESR indicating their desire and appropriateness to adopt a child with special placement needs.  This letter will be approved or denied by IBESR, and if approved, the family will be allowed to submit their dossier for a particular waiting child.

 IBESR has contracted  for a database to be designed that will help identify families for waiting children.  However, knowing the software development cycle and the operations of government bureaus, ABI has concerns that it might be some time before such a database is complete and implemented.

Summary:
The challenges ahead are significant as Haiti slowly implements its new laws, policies, and procedures.  We don’t know when the committee to make regular referrals will be formed, how often it will meet, or how long such a referral will actually take.  We don’t know how IBESR plans to manage referrals of waiting children before their database is built.  We’re not quite sure how crèches will manage with to provide high quality childcare while limited to collecting a significantly reduced child care fee.

 However, thus far, Haiti has done a remarkable job in becoming a Hague nation.  It is the first developing nation to implement the Hague in the recommended manner and has done so without inadvertently closing their own adoption program.  We do believe that IBESR can and will implement their new referral system, even if we don’t believe that it is the best system for Haiti and we do not know when the proposed committee will be formed or begin to operate.

It’s going to be a bumpy transition, as all has been for the past two years, but we do believe that the Haiti program will survive intact, that once referrals are issued we will be able to have cases processed effectively, and that children will come home.

For now, we must all hope that IBESR is able to swiftly implement its new procedures, and pray that they come to realize that for the first time since initiating the Hague treaty, they have made a grave misstep.  Haiti had the best possible referral method for children.  Now, in an attempt to imitate the systems that are not working well in other nations, IBESR has taken their first step backwards.  Let us pray that they choose to step forwards once again.