Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Did I Get Here?

I'm frequently asked how exactly I ended up in the shoes I am now struggling to fill. This is certainly NOT what I had planned for my life.

I had known since early childhood that I would adopt a child. And as an adult, I encouraged my husband to take all the hours of classes and work our way through the piles of paperwork that were required to allow us to serve as foster parents. Our foster children gave us far more than we could possibly have given them, and confirmed our desire to become adoptive parents.

After a long and rather torturous journey down a twisting road that most of you adoptive families would understand perfectly, we ended up with a referral of not one, not two, but THREE Haitian children to join our six-year-old birth daughter in our home in Fort Collins.

My predictable, traditional, conventional life ended on December 13th, 2003, when I first walked through the door of BRESMA orphanage. I was a moderately successful computer programmer. We were financially stable. I had been with my employer for four years and had no plans to leave, ever. But all that changed the moment I walked through the orphanage gate.

When I first met my three Haitian children, I had three thoughts almost simultaneously. The first came to me when I saw them across the front yard, and realized that they were really, really REAL. My first thought was, "Dear God, what have I done? I can't do this! I can't parent these three children!"

Then my two daughters turned to face me, and my second thought was wordless, as I was stunned by how beautiful they were. And in an instant they were in my arms and all I could think was, "Thank you, thank you, thank you Lord!"

I stayed in Haiti for a week with a group from Answered Prayers visiting my children. That was all the time it took for my entire life to turn upside down. Quite simply, the problem was that I was only adopting three children. Many in the orphanage had no families as yet, and hundreds of thousands of homeless and abandoned Haitian children outside did not even have the security BRESMA offers those who wait for an adoptive family. I couldn't live with that.

Upon returning to the States, I gave up programming and having a 'real' job. At the request of our orphanage director, I eventually founded a non-profit organization and a Colorado licensed adoption agency to help all the children I left behind. Just last summer we made the decision to merge the agency with The Alliance for Children, and I joined the Alliance as the Haiti programs coordinator. I am still doing the same work, but with a lot more help and support from the large and experienced staff at the Alliance.

As a Haitian program coordinator, I travel to Haiti every two to three months and live at the orphanage with the kids for at least a week. I speak Kreyol with them and the staff to learn about each child. At the orphanage I braid hair, listen to tattling, listen to giggling, dispense band aids, send kids to time out, wipe noses, listen to funny kid stories. I talk about the funny things Americans do, like insist on being all alone in the bathroom while they use the toilet, or getting all excited when people point with their middle fingers. I prepare the children for adoption by going through photo albums and answering questions. I get to know new children as best I can so that I can shoulder the awesome responsibility of matching them to a family to which they will belong for the rest of their lives. I'm constantly seeking adoptive families and funds for 'my' kids at the orphanage and more funds to support the desperate parents who come to our doors begging for food, formula, medicine, and hope.

Over the years I've become actively involved in the adoption process itself, both in the US and in Haiti. When US Immigrations services experienced communications issues with the Haitian government and then between federal bureaus here, I was able to help with finding a solution to bring our kids home to their families. I participated in delegations from the Joint Council of International Children's Services to develop a Standards of Practice for international adoptions in Haiti in the hopes of speeding an exhaustingly delayed process. Our work to make Haitian adoptions more efficient and yet build in greater protections for Haitian children and their birth parents continues. I'm beginning to learn that no project in Haiti is ever truly finished.

I came to Haiti as a computer programmer mother of one with a predictable life. I left as a humanitarian aid worker and mother of four. I've never looked back. Since then I've done dozens of things I never would have expected. I've hiked deep into the mountains of Haiti seeking a birth family. I've learned a new language. I have rubbed elbows with and ruffled feathers of important people in Washington. I've wondered where our next grocery money was coming from. I've helped to write international policy. I've comforted an adoptive family and our staff when a baby in our care died in the hospital. I've held the phone away from my ear and joined adoptive families in whooping with joy when we see the light at the end of the tunnel.

My life is not at all what I studied for, planned for, or expected. Thank goodness.

Signing of the Standards of Practice

After months of planning, editing, and worrying, it finally came to pass. On January 30th, 2009, the STANDARDS OF PRACTICE FOR CHILD WELFARE ORGANIZATIONS WITH RESPECT TO INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION were presented and signed at a grand ceremony hosted be the US Consulate at the Embassy. Approximately 42 people from four different nations gathered to witness and participate.

What are the Standards of Practice? At first glance they are a document, sponsored by the Joint Council of International Children's Services ( describing a professional standard of practice that has as its core values integrity, honesty, transparency, and professional service delivery. They represent the collective will of the international adoption community and serve as the minimum standards of practice by which all signatories will serve children, birth parents, prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents. The Standards offer protections for everyone involved in an international adoption, and ensure that the child's welfare is always first and foremost.

Joint Council first sent a delegation to Haiti in late July of 2008. Our intention was to meet with orphanage directors, US officials, and members of the Haitian government to see if there was anything we could do to help with the extensive delays in the Haitian adoption process.

Not so many years ago, international adoptions from Haiti were relatively quick and simple. Children were often able to leave the country with their new forever families just eight or nine months following referral. Today, various court processes, bureaucracy, and complications have slowed adoptions to a crawl, with many taking eighteen months, twenty-four months, or even longer.

The delay has been hard for waiting families to bear. Children are growing up in institutions, waiting for their new families to be allowed to come for them But there has been an even more dire consequence. Haiti has very few social services available to the masses. Most aid is private, and many creches (orphanages) are actively involved in serving their communities.

Not just adoptions...
Our partner orphanage, Brebis de Saint-Michel de L'Attalaye, or BRESMA, is very active in humanitarian aid. We operate a free school, which provides education to 160 children. Not only do the children receive all of their school supplies, but they are given a large meal at noon and all of the clothes they need for school - right down to their socks, shoes, and underwear. The relief from providing weekday clothing and the largest meal of the day has quite literally allowed dozens of Haitian families to stay together when otherwise the children might have been abandoned.

In the past, our orphanage always kept several cribs open in a special area for emergency services to the neighborhood. I would usually arrive to see three or four infants on IV fluids and medication, with our trained nurses and their mothers hovering over them supervising their recovery. In Haiti, something as simple as diarrhea can and does kill children by the thousands. The basic medication and care that our orphanage was able to dispense to babies in the community saved children by the dozens from a pointless and unnecessary death. I'm using the past tense because we are not saving them anymore. We don't have a free crib, and our supplies are stretched to the limit to care for the children in our custody.

No room at the inn...
All of the orphanage directors I work with are in the same situation. With adoptions stretching on for years, we are all out of money, space and time. All of us are failing to serve the desperate families outside our doors as we struggle to care for the children in our houses until they can go home to their adoptive families. Childcare which was ample to last for eight months was spend a year ago. There is no extra to share. We have nothing left to give.

Why the delays?
The adoption delays are caused by one major obstacle. Quite simply, we are asking Haitian courts to break the law in the majority of the adoptions we try to have approved. The Constitution, written in 1974 under the Duvalier regime, clearly specifies who may adopt:
  • Parents age 35 or older
  • Married a minimum of 10 years
  • NO children

Very few families applying to adopt from Haiti meet these criteria. The law does allow for Presidential Dispensation to allow families who do not meet these standards to adopt.

For many years, Haitian courts simply ignored the law and approved adoptions to families who do not conform. Under the leadership of President Rene Preval, Haiti is progressing towards a more orderly and democratic era. I, for one, am very enthusiastic about Haitian courts rigorously upholding Haitian law, even though at the moment it is costing us dearly.

A two-part solution
The Joint Council, UNICEF, and the Haitian Creche directors' association are working together on both a short term and a long term solution to solve the current crisis. First, we are lobbying for an efficient and consistent Presidential Dispensation procedure. Under the current law, families who are approved for adoption by Haitian Social Services (IBESR) can be presented to the Ministry of Justice for Dispensation. The MOJ has processed at least 13 cases from two different orphanages, keeping each for less than a month, as of the time of this posting. The dossiers are now at the Presidential Palace, where the next step in the process is unclear.

The second phase is to lobby for the passage of the proposed new adoption law, co-authored by UNICEF. The new law includes protections for Haitian children, their biological families, and even their adoptive families. It has far more liberal guidelines for potential adoptive families. Stay tuned for how we plan to advocate for the new law - we are going to need your help!

Why the Standards of Practice?
Sadly, child trafficking and unethical adoption practices are still occurring in Haiti. The Standards of Practice specify what a 'good' orphanage is and does. Those who can sign, publicly announcing their adherence to a strict code of ethics and involvement with humanitarian aid, are declaring themselves to be part of the solution. By formally declaring themselves as a group committed to ethical adoptions, the orphanages have achieved a unified and respectable voice to appeal for help for Haitian children - those safe within our walls, and those still outside in the streets.

Among those attending the signing were Assistant Ambassador of Canada, a French Consular Officer, UNICEF’s Child Protection Chief, the US Director of Non-Immigrant Visa Services, and the US Consul General. Representatives from various NGOS, humanitarian aid groups, adoption service providers, and additional creches were also present. The inaugural signatories of the Standards of Practice were:

  • The Alliance for Children
  • Brebis de Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye
  • God’s Littlest Angels
  • Holt Fontana Children's Home
  • Holt International
  • Petite Ange de Chantal
  • Les Petite Enfants de Jesus

Several additional creches are already operating at a very high standard of ethics and transparency, and will be signing in the near future.