Tuesday, October 27, 2009

IBESR moves forward

Some good news from the front: late on Friday night I came home from a high school football game to find an email from Margarette - 7 children were out of IBESR!!

I got to wake up several families with some wonderful news. When I tell you that I will call you, day or night, weekend or Christmas, with any good news, I am not kidding.

The statistics are as follows:

  1. in IBESR 6/19/2009, out 10/22. Family has two bio children.

  2. second child for the same family

  3. in IBESR September 2008, out 10/22/2009. Family had two bio children at the time of application and had been married for 9 years. No idea why they had to wait so long - perhaps they sat on the case until the parents' 10th anniversary?

  4. in IBESR 6/19/2009, out 10/22. Family has two bio children

  5. in IBESR 6/19/2009, out 10/22. Single mother meets the law of 1974

  6. in IBESR 3/4/2009, out 10/22. Family has three bio children

  7. same family as above

My heart breaks for the children who had to wait for so long during the long period where nothing was moving forward. We have one family who started two separate adoptions well over a year apart, and it appears their daughters will leave Haiti on the same plane.

As you read the statistics above, please keep in mind that what has happened in these cases does not necessarily predict what will happen in your adoption case. Really the only thing you can count on is that Margarette and I will do everything in our power to bring your children home as fast as we can.

These quick Dispensations for three of the families gives us great hope. At this time, Parquet court and the Ministry of the Interior are generally processing legitimate adoption cases smoothly. We must hope for swift passage home for all of the children at BRESMA, and all of the waiting children of Haiti.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Notre Maison

Every year I vow not to visit Haiti in August (although generally I end having to do so for one reason or another. This year I avoided August and arrived in October to a record breaking heatwave. I’m just not getting used to it, but neither is anyone else. Everyone is complaining about the heat. It’s too hot to eat or sleep. I just don’t know what I would do if we did not have our working inverter so that I can have a fan in my bedroom.

This morning I visited Notre Maison, a small orphanage primarily serving handicapped children. The house is down on the plain, aptly called ‘La Plenn’, behind the airport. I was quite impressed with the care of the children. Keeping children with serious physical and developmental handicaps healthy is not easy even in the States.

These children appeared healthy, and they had the alert and eager look of children who have been loved and played with as a matter of course. Some of them might have a very different future in the US. I was particularly drawn to one bright eyed little girl who does not have the use of her legs, but certainly has the use of her intelligence. In a country where the bright, beautiful, and able-bodied can starve to death while searching for work, without the aid of a place like Notre Maison she wouldn’t have a chance.
I spent a few more hours lounging around the house, watching and playing with the kids, and braiding hair before Franck came to pick me up in the late afternoon to meet with Margarette.
Margarette was tired but invigorated from her trip to Jeremie. The BRESMA foundation has built and inaugurated the first school in Jeremie. Prior to this year, children who wished to attend school had to walk for three hours each way. Read that again – three hours. A six hour walking commute for children, five days per week. Now they won’t have to walk, and those who can’t afford it won’t have to pay either. Free education, uniforms, shoes and a generous meal every day will allow many children who would otherwise have had to be placed for adoption to remain with their birth families.

We went over my case load. This is the most encouraging meeting we’ve had in years. Cases are moving! Nineteen children will be leaving for home shortly, and many more are making steady process. A few remain frustratingly stuck, but we will never give up on a child.

In the evening Jamie and I discussed their plans for their big fundraiser on November 28th. The girls need to raise much of their rent money, and some extra to cover the costs of care for the children they take in before they are matched to a family. I’m hoping to find a way to attend, and maybe even bring some of my own kids to show everyone exactly what we do for kids here at BRESMA.

Tonight was time for phone calls. Parent after parent called in to talk to their older children on the phone. The kids can’t understand much of what their parents say, but they are thrilled to hear their voices. They all have one burning question – when are you coming to see me? My families are always anxious that the children won’t understand why their adoptive families leave them here at the end of a visit. But the kids to understand. We talk to them about it all the time, how the families will come and visit and go away, and finally Manmi Margarette and Manmi Diana will finish their adoption cases and they will be able to go on the airplane. They all know that their families are just as sad as they are that they cannot go home today. The bonds that form between parents and children are worth the pain of parting repeatedly. When at last the children can go, they are not going home with strangers and they have no doubts left that they want to go ‘home’ to the home they have never yet seen.

I’m on my way early tomorrow morning, and I won’t arrive until the wee hours of the 14th. It’s a long day, and I’ll spend it missing all of my kids in both of my homes. I must admit I’m looking forward to air conditioning, and snow, and scheduling my next trip to Haiti.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Megamart and the cockroach war

Megamart is a fascinating international version of a Sam’s Club or Costco. You have to have a membership card to be allowed to shop, and you can buy products in quantity. But they have many unfamiliar brands and labels from all over the world. Some are from South America, but French products are also popular. There are even a few labeled in the Arabic alphabet.

I bought a few packages of sponges, all of the generic dandruff shampoo they had, about 20 bars of soap and 24, count ‘em, 24 aerosol cans of roach killer. I ended up paying about what I might have expected to pay in the States. Most things here cost more than we are used to paying, as everything is imported.

We brought our loot back to the house and I had the older boys help me carry it all in. They actually love it when I give them chores. It makes them feel useful and important. Then Manno, our groundsman and janitor, and Manmi Lis, now head of the house, went to war. All the cabinets in the kitchen area of the house were thrown open. The skittering of hundreds of tiny feet was audible, and the walls seethed with motion, and the battle was on! I had to leave the room quickly, and I herded the kids out with me. Over my shoulder I called a warning to Lis and Mano not to inhale too much poison, but I think they failed to hear me in the frenzied joy of killing hundreds of roaches at the touch of an aerosol button. We cheered them on from the doorway. The carnage was unbelievable. There was literally a coating of dead roaches on the counter and floor when they finished, and hours later they are still limping out of crevices and falling from the cabinet doors. There must be well over a thousand dead in the one room. I’m trying hard not to think about just how much company I undoubtedly have in my own room right this moment…

I got to spend the afternoon just relaxing with the kids, which is what I like to do best. They are amazingly inventive with the limited number of toys surviving at any given time. Three scooters whizzed back and forth between the backyard and the front. Smaller children played games of pretend with dolls and small toys under the tables. A large group of mixed ages and both sexes played with the one jump rope they have not yet destroyed from the last missions group. In the background a group of rowdy older boys played some sort of very complicated ‘police and bad guys’ game with squirt guns. As today’s high was 98 degrees with 100% humidity, I was very tempted to join their game. The older and quieter girls retreated to their bedroom upstairs to color, draw, look at books, and play with dolls.

I braided a few girls’ hair, and Gertride and Beattha gave me thick cornrows twisted up into a bun at the back. Generally I need to remove their creations before I leave the house. Tonight I went out to a restaurant with a really beautiful hairdo by American standards. Every girl whose hair I did not braid today wants hers done tomorrow. Sure wish I had more time and less arthritis!

Our current number of 30 kids and 8 to 10 staff members seems to be a really good ratio. I’m noticing tremendous improvements in the respect for each others possessions and better overall order and discipline in the house.

I don’t quite understand how this is, but I am the boss of this house. I am younger than Manmi Lis by quite a bit, I’m a foreigner with very mediocre Kreyol, and I never tried to assert authority when I began visiting Haiti, but there it is. I guess that can be advantageous. If I ask for something to be done, it does seem to happen even in my absence.

On my last trip, I noted that the children were eating their food with their hands, unattended and uncorrected. I told my nannies that it embarrasses us all when the children go to the hotel and eat like pigs. That made them laugh. I asked that someone sit in the dining room at every meal to enforce some sort of table manners. Granted, lower socio-economic class Haitian are not greatly concerned with table manners, but they do know how to use utensils. Six months later, at least one person is in attendance at every meal, everyone but the smallest or most challenging kids are using their spoons, and those who do not are corrected.

I’m really pleased on two levels. The kids are learning better manners, and it’s hard to bully or tease anyone with a nanny looking over your shoulder. More importantly, I’m living in an orphanage in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and I’m worrying about table manners? We are so blessed! I will not write about some of the other orphanages I have seen in Haiti, or what my colleagues have described in other countries. Let us just be grateful that we are able to be annoyed by someone eating rice with his fingers.

As usual, I can’t begin to imagine anything to work on with the care of the kids at Jamie’s House. It’s better than the daycare any of you will be able to find once you bring your children home. The only better place is at home with a permanent family.

Here at BRESMA II, I feel that we need more meat and that the kids need to be eating fresh fruits and vegetables each day. We need a lot more shoes (they go through them so fast!) and I’d like to throw some of the clothes into the rag bag. We’ll need to replace them. Our big issue remains simply the slow speed of adoptions. Some of these kids have been waiting here far too long.

It’s getting late, so I’m off to take my cold water bucket bath. The light in the bathroom is broken, so I’ll wash in the dark. I suppose that is an advantage, because then I won’t be able to see any of the roaches I am absolutely sure are waiting for me. I’m sure they’ll want vengeance for their fallen comrades.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Empathy training

A much slower day today, thank goodness…

In the morning I took pictures at BRESMA II and then went to Jamie’s in the hopes of downloading them to my computer using her card reader. No luck there, which is a real shame. I would have liked to show the pictures and film clips to the kids on a bigger screen.

I spent some time just playing with and observing the kids at Jamie’s House. It’s amazing to see the changes in those who were so sickly when last I was here. A very high staff ratio, rigorous rules and training, and excellent nutrition can work true magic.

In the afternoon we went to the Karibe hotel to meet with the director of a new non-profit. I was told that they were looking for projects to fund, but unfortunately at the moment they are looking for non-profits to buy their products at cost, and then their company will donate into a projects fund. It’s a great idea, and a fantastic deal for non-profits who need to buy t-shirts. Unfortunately what we need is money for the newly arrived medically fragile infants and Jamie’s and the renewal of BRESMA’s women’s literacy, education, micro-grant and empowerment program.

I tried to check my email from the Karibe, but the connection was just terrible. It’s easy to forget that I am still in Haiti when I’m inside the luxurious Karibe, but one really can’t count on electricity, much less internet, when in Haiti.

Two new children whom I brought over here yesterday from BRESMA I are thriving and having great fun at ‘my’ house. It’s nice to have a day with time at home just to be with them kids.
Discipline here is a difficult thing. I’ve done a head count, and we have thirty kids in the house. There are about 8 to 10 adults here at any given time, but many of them have specific duties other than childcare. Someone has to wash the laundry, cook the meals, and clean the house. It’s pretty easy to get away with being destructive or even bullying other kids. The little children have learned that they can stay near a nanny while they are playing with toys to ensure that they get to keep them, but we do have several kids in the house who like to tease on purpose. I’ve been working on that today some. I’ve seen a few instances of bullying or mean teasing, and taken that child (in all cases, one of the older boys) aside, leaned down, and whispered in his ear.

“How do you think xxx feels when you tease him?” I ask.

“Mad,” or, “Sad,” the little perpetrator will answer.

“Yes, you are right. You don’t like it when people tease you and make you sad or mad, do you?” I ask.

Usually I get a bit of embarrassed and regretful headshaking here.

“What do you think you need to say to xxxx?” I ask.

I know those ‘sorrys’ are coming more from embarrassment than from genuine regret, but it’s a good way to demonstrate the behavior I want them to have. I’ve already seen a few boys who were bullies themselves just hours ago telling other kids to be nicer. Too funny!

It’s interesting to see how respect works here too. I’m not quite sure what the difference is, but I’ve never had trouble getting most of the older kids to obey me. The little ones are a different matter. Sometimes I’m about to drown in very hot, small bodies, and I can’t get them up and off for the life of me. Perhaps because I’m not genuinely disappointed in them, and just overheated? But I do know the kids tend to be raucous and wild when missionary trips come to visit. It would help if all of the ‘blan’ would insist on good manners before they handed out treats. I feel sorry for the kids living in the orphanage too, but I feel even sorrier for them when they are learning to behave in ways that will cost them friends when they go home at last.

Tomorrow Jamie and Ali and I will head out to Megamart to buy a few necessities. Manmi Lis asked me for roach poison. This morning, there was a cockroach will over an inch long in my bedroom. So I will certainly be complying with that request!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Liberty, justice, and bureaucracy for all...

A busy and somewhat frustrating day. Margarette is still in Jeremie, so Irlande and I attended a Visa appointment with a pair of toddler twins whose adoption is complete, passports are in hand, and I600 form is adjudicated. Imagine my surprise that even when I pointed out the Power of Attorney form in the packet from USCIS as the Consular officer looked over our paperwork, and was told that they cannot accept copies of powers of attorney. Which would make perfect sense, except that USCIS had sent the copy, not us! The original was included in the I600 packet. So apparently the copy of the officer’s legal document adjudicating the case is acceptable, but the copy of the power of attorney for me that he included was not. And we tend to think of the Haitian government as difficult and overly bureaucratic…

We left the Consulate with arms full of toddlers, but no Visas. On to plan B.
Holt International employees Mansour Masse and Mike Noah picked me up outside the Consulate and took me to the Villa Creole hotel while Jamie and Ali took the babies and Irlande back to BRESMA. Mike, Mansour and I had lunch, strategized for our meeting, and discussed various current issues in Haitian adoptions. We are very lucky to be working in a supportive community of honest adoption agencies and orphanages. The cooperation we share has benefitted all of us greatly.

At two we went back to the Consulate for a meeting with Garry Pierrot, Adoptions Unit Chief, and Linda Percy, his new co-chief. Ms. Percy will take over the Chief position for a few months when Mr. Pierrot leaves his post in December or January until his permanent replacement arrives. Ms. Percy lived in Africa for 13 years prior to coming to Haiti five months ago. She has an obvious heart for our kids, and was visibly disturbed when I described the effects the extreme delay in the issuance of Presidential Dispensations has caused to our children who wait and wait.

We discussed the quality of service at the Embassy. When I went this morning, our staff was somewhat skeptical that I would be allowed into the Embassy without a printed copy of the email confirming our appointment. I went in ready to fight for my right, as an American citizen, to appear for an appointment with or without a copy of an email! But I had no trouble whatsoever walking right in with Irlande and the kids after a quick check to verify that we did in fact have an appointment. I discussed entrance requirements with Mr. Pierrot and Ms. Percy, and was assured that nobody would be required to present an email to prove an appointment, and that verification with the Adoptions Unit or USCIS staff would be required regardless. Overall we were able to report that service has been excellent, although we were not able to get a consistent timeline for processing. We were assured that DOS will attempt to respond to all emails in a minimum of 72 hours.

The recent decision of Judge Rock Cadet to enforce the section of Haitian law requiring that adoptive parents appear in court. Although nobody has yet done so, apparently the law states that both the adoptive and biological parents must appear in court together at the time of relinquishment of the child. This presents immediate and grave ethical issues – at present no ethical facilitator allows any family to meet a child as their referral for adoption prior to the complete and legal relinquishment of that child to the orphanage. If birth and adoptive parents meet prior to the relinquishment, there is great potential for disaster. Adoptive families may be accused of incentivizing the Haitian family into giving up their child. Or the Haitian family might change their minds about the adoption when the implications are explained to them again by the court. Having a family change their minds and find a way to parent their own children is always our first and best hope for any child about to be relinquished. But if that child has already been introduced to an adoptive family as his very own, there is a chance for heartbreak on both sides.

Thus far Judge Cadet has accepted proof of visitation from families who began their adoptions prior to his ruling, and has accepted the signature of others before the same justice of the peace after the birth family relinquished their child. We’ll have to hope that he continues to do so.

The Department of State is in a most difficult situation. It is of course their duty to support Haiti in adhering to its own law, and yet the State Department has maintained a travel warning against Haiti for years.

Exhausted, filthy, and very, very hot, I returned to BRESMA II to find a bowl of excellent hot and somewhat spicy soup waiting for me. It was greatly appreciated, as I seem to have a knack for managing to miss meals here. There is no refrigerator filled with snacks waiting for me either – around here if you miss a meal, you just have to wait for the next one. And as hot is it has been today (just like it usually is in August!), missing more than one in a row is unpleasant. I am so spoiled as an American. Most of these children ate just one meal a day before they came here.

This late afternoon and evening were presents and phone calls time. I got to distribute care packages, photo albums, and gifts to the kids. They all ask the same question: “When are my parents coming to see me?” And then, like children everywhere, they examine their gifts and list what they want their families to send next time. I have to tell everyone I don’t take orders again and again.

I do hope that by next time I have a new cell phone with a good quality speakerphone feature. I’d like to be able to just sit back and translate conversations for children and families, and let them hear each other’s voices.

Tomorrow I’m off to another appointment at the Embassy; this one with USCIS-DHS. It’s only 8:00 but I’m ready for bed. It’s at least 90 degrees in this room, so it could take quite a while to fall asleep. Not to mention that there are about fifty noisy children in the house…

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lakay se lakay

October 7th, 2009

Arrived in PaP after six months away. This is my 25th visit to Haiti. I’m running out of pages in my passport, and the city feels absolutely familiar. Jamie and Ali picked me up their marvelous air conditioned car and we drove to the office.

Margarette is in Jeremie at the opening of a new BRESMA school, so tomorrow I will attend my first Visa appointment for a client family. I’m pretty excited to be able to be present at the very last step of the process for two of ‘my’ kids. We were hoping to find a copy of the power of attorney the adoptive family notarized for me, but we had no luck. The originals should all be with the Department of State at the US Consulate, as they were given to USCIS when the family’s I600 was adjudicated. But I’m holding my breath. We did try calling DOS directly, but their number is disconnected. I tried USCIS, and voice mailbox of the person I needed to speak to is full. When I called back, the operator tried to transfer me to DOS and dropped the call. Typical Haiti!

The rules were changed just recently so that no representative who does not have power of attorney can attend a VISA appointment, with or without the adoptive parents. This would prove a real problem in this case, as the children are 17 month old twins. I’m imagining chasing them both around the Consulate by myself while I try to file the family’s paperwork! As it is, our secretary Irlande will attend with me. We have a power of attorney form for her in hand. I’m going along, hoping that they’ll just let me in as I’ve been there a few times before. If not, I guess we’ll see how fast Irlande can run while she is filing paperwork!

Next stop was Jamie’s House. The new house is really beautiful, and it’s an easy walk from BRESMA I and BRESMA II. It has a much better play area for the babies and toddlers outdoors and the neighborhood is safer too.

Jamie’s landlord agreed to build a new room onto the house as part of the lease conditions, but now he is reneging on his agreement. Unfortunately, here in Haiti there is really nothing we can do about his dishonesty. I do wish the house were a bit bigger. We have at least three children who will go home by the end of the month, but I must agree with Jamie and Ali that the house is overcrowded and that they should not let in any more children from the waiting list. A crowded house leads to a lower level of care. I’ve asked her to look into the cost of having a new room and bathroom built, and perhaps we’ll fundraise for that addition.

As always, the children are thriving. One baby boy who was so sick and starving the last time I visited that I burst into tears at the sight of him has become a sleek, healthy, very American looking boy. He retains his sweet ‘old soul’ eyes, but he laughs and plays and bounces up and down in his walker as if he’s never had a real problem in his short life. This does NOT look like an orphanage. It resembles a very high end daycare center, but with a better staff ratio.

Jamie and I went to pick up two of the oldest children from preschool. They go five days per week. One of them is my ‘nephew’, Fredo. He is the half brother of four of my Haitian children. Jamie’s parents are in the process of adopting him. He reminds me so much of my son Greg at the same age. Even his thick, strong wrists and hands are just the same.

Fredo is very proud of himself in his little uniform. All Haitian school children wear uniforms, and the girls wear lacy socks and usually matching ribbons in their hair every day. No matter how poor a family is, the children will be immaculately dressed and groomed. Haitian culture places great value on hard work, pride in personal appearance and behavior, and education is more important than anything else. A birth mother once told me, “L’ekol se la vi”: “School is life”.

On the way back from school Jamie dropped me off at ‘my house’, BRESMA II. This is the home of all of our older children, starting at about age four or five. The noise from the house deafened the whole street outdoors when I stepped out of the car. More than fifty voices let me know that it had been too long between visits, all at once. As I entered I was mobbed my small bodies until Manmi Lis herded them all into the main room and had everyone sit down at the tables. The children performed a welcome song for me. There are at least ten new faces, and I felt the familiar bittersweet joy when I missed those of a beloved pair of twins who recently went home. I’ll have a lot of sorting out to do with Irlande and Margarette about who is looking for a family when we get a day in the office together.

This evening Manmi Robert dropped by for a visit. Manmi Robert was the house mother for BRESMA II for several years, and was and is dearly loved by the children and staff. We were overjoyed to see her. I was able to deliver several albums and photos for birth families from adoptive families who have already brought their children home. Everyone was thrilled to see their dear friends so obviously thriving, and it gave hope to the children who are still waiting here. One considerate French family had sent an album of their baby, now a chunky and indulged toddler, just for the nanny who raised her with such love.

As we pored over the albums, the nannies told me about the many parents who come to the house again and again, praying and waiting for a photograph of their children. Some of them come more than once a month and leave in tears every time. Some have been coming for years, hoping against hope for some word about their lost children.

To those of you reading this blog, please don’t forget your child’s birth parents. We will never know what it is like to have to choose to place a child for adoption because we cannot care for him or her. They never forget for their little ones for one moment. Would you? In Haiti, children die every day. It is very hard for me to convince a birth mother that her child is still alive if I don’t have the pictures to prove it. You can do the right thing and ease your children’s first family’s heart just by sending a little album every few months or even once a year with someone who is travelling. And then, later, when your child grows older and has more questions about his adoption, you can show him how much you respect and value his culture, his birth family, and therefore himself. You can let him know that you cared enough about his birth family to remember them and give them peace that they made the right choice for their precious baby.