Sunday, March 10, 2013


City of Jacmel
Our last day of our trip. Marg and I cross the mountains to go to Jacmel, a beautiful old city by the sea. Marg’s agency is completing several adoption cases handed to them by their Central Authority when another adoption agency shut down.

We arrive in time for the end of church services. A young woman greets us in such fluent English that I ask her if she has ever studied in the United States. She stammers, laughs, and denies having left Haiti. The music in the main room is exquisite – a small band comprised of teens who live here accompany the children and teenagers singing passionate hymns in rich, glorious harmony. Haitian church leaves every church, temple, or other place of worship I’ve visited in the United States cold. These children are on fire with passion for the words they sing. Eyes closed, hands lifted they worship God with a devotion and adoration that denies all suffering and celebrates the gifts that they do have. Marg is just as touched as I am.

The young woman who welcomed us gives a short sermon written for young children about leadership, and how we set an example to others all the time even when we fail to act when we should. It speaks to me, as I often wish I could do much less of the advocacy work that I do. It is hard. But it is necessary, and it would seem that I was the one picked to do it. At least for now. We have a motto in our family: “you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” I must keep reciting that to myself as I wish for a simpler life in which my mistakes are less costly to others.

The church gathering breaks up. We are examined with mild curiosity before the children scatter to more interesting pursuits. We are give the grand tour. This is a very nice facility, with plenty of space and even open land around the buildings. The kids go outside the complex to go to school every day. Our guide explains that the birth families are only permitted to visit three times per year. However, in this orphanage, a lot of thought has been given to an exit strategy for each child. The teenagers are conscientiously being trained in useful, marketable skills. I’m shown tile laid by one young man who is almost finished with his apprenticeship. Some of the girls sew beautiful bags and make uniforms for their orphanage siblings. Uniform sewing is a much needed skill in Haiti. One ‘graduate’ is currently in medical school in the Dominican Republic!

Project House Above Jacmel
I’d still rather see a model where these kids went home on weekends and holidays, but at least I can see that they’ll have a future.

Jacmel is one of those places where we can see what a paradise Haiti could be. On the way home, we ask our driver to take us someplace for lunch. He asks if we want to get ‘little food’ or a ‘big lunch’. I tell him I’d like Marg to really enjoy her meal and that I want to be very sure that the food is safe. He knows just where to take us.

We have lunch on a hotel terrace overlooking the glittering turquoise Caribbean sea. The breeze is mild, the temperature perfect. Between the waves and the wind and all of the good food, I can hardly stay conscious. Give me a hammock and I’ll be set for the afternoon! But tomorrow we must fly home, so reluctantly we bid farewell to a paradise to rival any in the islands. This interlude was a glimpse of what we can all hope for Haiti.

The View From the Hotel Terrace

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Day at Home

Guess which one is the naughty twin?
This morning I met with the directors of a small, independent orphanage regarding a pre-identified adoption. We’re considering very few of these, as IBESR discourages them and each one must be presented on a case by case basis. This case is worth fighting for. The family has travelled to Haiti again and again, by themselves, over several years and the children are older. They have nowhere else to go, having been abandoned years before at the orphanage. We still have some very intimidating logistics to try to work out, but it’s worth trying in this case. If we can ever get to the point, between the quota and legal requirements, of presenting the case, I think I’ll be able to argue convincingly why these older kids should have a strong say in who their parents should be.

In the afternoon it’s back to BRESMA to play with the rather intimidating number of children already in care for whom I am responsible for finding families, and finding a way to submit the dossiers of those families. The pressure is overwhelming, the stakes very high. Failure is not an option. I have now seen the alternative up close and personal and I will never forget it.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Thomassin Kids
I’m still shell shocked after yesterday, so I am deeply grateful my ‘public’ appearances for this trip are over. If I drift off into a state of blank and helpless ruminations, nobody around me is going to ask me why.

Marg and I drive up into the mountains to visit yet another foreign funded orphanage – this one supported by Canadians. It’s beautiful up here. The house is large and well provisioned, and the children in care are obviously healthy and content. They even show off on their bicycles for us. The orphanage sends then alternate years to a school to learn English and then to a Haitian school to catch up on the basics.

I am told that all of the children here have biological families living. These families are allowed to visit them a few times each year. Many more families would like to place their children in the orphanage.

This is so common in Haiti. These children are getting a fine education, food, medical care. They live in health and safety. They’ll leave this place at eighteen knowing how to read and write in three languages, perform mathematical operations, and have a background in science and social studies. I wonder how they will possibly know how to actually function in Haitian society? How to be a wife, and husband, a mother a father? How to find a job, when most jobs in Haiti come from personal connections and they won’t have any? Are they better off in this isolated, idealized house so separated from Haitian reality than they would have been in desperate poverty but real families? I don’t know. But I do worry. I just can’t see how orphanages such as this, that strive to break family connections instead of functioning as a charitable boarding house while children go to school and go home for summers and weekends, is helping them for the future as well as the present.

I’m stepping off my soap box now. Thousands of American, European, and Canadian sponsored orphanages aren’t listening anyway. But hopefully they are thinking hard about what will become of the children they take in as they grow into adults and must find a way to survive in the Haitian economy.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Have you heard the starfish story? I won’t tell it again here, but you can read up on it all around the world and the web. Here’s a link.

I live that story. I live it so hard that I have a starfish tattooed on my arm so that I never forget it. My arm has been strong and sure and it’s thrown almost every little starfish I’ve picked up back to safety, either with his first family or a new one.

Today, our efforts fell short.

If you are a sensitive person, you might want to stop reading here. I sure wish I could stop writing here. I wish I knew less about failure, and who pays for our failures.

Tonight I watched a child die. From six feet away, I watched his soul leave his body while a frenzy of people coaxed and begged it to remain. Do you know what a dead child looks like? Small. Very small, and empty.

After our IBESR meeting, we all turned our phones back on. Immediately Margarette got a call from Franck that one of our toddlers was in the hospital. I had seen K. the day before, and knew that he was sick. He had some sort of intestinal virus. Just to be cautious, Margarette had taken him to the doctor and our nurse had him on IV fluids. We weren’t worried about him. He looked uncomfortable, but still alert and ready to get out of his crib.

The crèches I work with all have a ‘safe rather than sorry’ policy about medical care. If the staff think a child is sick, they are to go to the doctor or the hospital first and check with someone about it later. Far better an unnecessary bill than a really sick kiddo.

We stopped by the guesthouse to let Marg off, and I decided to come with Margarette to the hospital mostly out of curiosity. I had not been to the General Hospital before. It’s about five minutes walk from BRESMA, but we so rarely have children admitted (because of all of the preventative care we do) that I hadn’t visited.

I remember that we were still talking about the IBESR meeting in the car, focused on the business of the day as we made what we thought was going to be a routine check in on a child having his IV line reinserted. We were so wrong.

Our first clue as to the seriousness of the situation was Wislande, a very young nanny who has been working at BRESMA since before the earthquake. It was Wislande who carried the little boy to the hospital in her arms. She is a very empathetic, loving young woman who adores the children she cares for. Wislande is beside herself. I’ve never seen her like this before. I feel an itchy tingle of fear, but she is young and emotional.

In the hospital room, K. looks tinier than ever in the stark white bed. A doctor is instructing a nurse who seems to be having a terrible time getting an IV needle into him. I’m not surprised. K. came to us severely malnourished – emaciated with dry, fine red hair. There’s so little of him there, even after months of nutrition. Starvation takes a long time to reverse.

The nurse is endlessly patient, trying his arms and even his legs to find a vein. K. calls out, and Wislande moves into his field of vision to soothe and comfort him. The hospital staff chatter in the background, relaxed. Just another day at work. Finally, the nurse finds a vein and hooks in the IV. All is peaceful. For about three minutes.

The hospital room blurs into action and my brain freezes up. I can’t digest the rapid fire Kreyol whirling around me, but I do know what chest compressions and an oxygen mask look like. Margarette and I look at each other. She looks like a deer in the headlights - eyes huge and panicked. I imagine I look just the same. This cannot be happening. K. was doing just fine less than thirty hours ago!

Wislande rushes out of the room in tears. I am still paralyzed. I watch, stunned as the doctor and a whole team of nurses labor feverishly over a child that weighs less than thirty pounds, with legs like a fragile cricket and the soul of a human being in his fragile and failing body. And then it’s gone. Just like that. The staff keep trying, but I can tell by looking at their faces that they know he’s gone. His little heart, no doubt just as wasted from his early starvation as his tiny arms and legs, simply gave out.

Six children have died in BRESMA’s care over the past ten years. Dixie Bickel at God’s Littlest Angels has lost many, many more as she uses her in-house NICU to battle death for the frailest of the frail. You’d think that living in Haiti, surrounded by so much death and human misery, these women would have grown shells around their hearts. But they have not.

Margarette is beside herself, crying hysterically in a chair in the hallway when at last I am able to move and stumble from the now silent hospital room. K.’s body is so tiny without him in it anymore. I still feel complete disbelief. This couldn’t have happened. Not really. Could it? He was just fine yesterday. We were talking about taking him off the IV because he wanted to get up and play with the other children. Can we rewind time, go back to yesterday, change something so that today never comes?

Of course not. What’s done is done. We have failed this tiny boy in the most unforgivable way possible. We have failed to save his very life.

Margarette and I each have a family to contact to let them know that they have lost a son.

It should never have happened. No child should die of starvation on a planet of such bounty and excess. I know that it happens every day in Haiti, but today, it happened to K. God rest your sweet soul, baby boy.

IBESR Meeting

Manmi Wislande and a Young Friend
It’s funny – as I write this, I realize that I am a different person than the one who set out this morning intending to take some cute kid photos and attend a policy meeting. I’d anticipated a lot of fun in the morning and a frustrating afternoon, which is in fact part of what I got.

Marg and I went to AUBE first, where I took photos of all of ‘my’ kids and a dozen or so new ones. IBESR asked Sonia to come and get a LOT of new babies to care for, just after our agency’s accreditation was announced but before they told us about the quota. We now have a shocking number of hungry little mouths to feed, and no good prediction as to when we’ll be able to place them with families.

Marg makes good friends with a baby boy who arrived at just one day of age. He’s a lucky guy. Growing up here, he’s right on target developmentally and a very happy baby! Marg ponders if she could stuff him in her large purse for the flight home. I’ve had the same thought many times myself!

Several years ago the adoption case of one of my favorite little squishlets ever was taking forever. As I was unpacking my suitcase and Ti Fafann was standing in it anyway, I asked her if she would like to ride home in my suitcase. She said she would. I asked her if she could be very quiet. She answered, “No. I will sing!” So we had to do it the official way. Still – it’s tempting! (Please Note – ABI’s Director said that I must specifically state that this is all said in a joking manner and I would never participate in actual child smuggling! )

Next we go to IBESR. Sonia, Marg and I arrive early as the Crèche Directors’ Association email had asked us to, but we are the only ones. The planning meeting we’d hoped to have in advance does not occur.

IBESR has made some improvements. There is a large, newly constructed meeting room at the back of the complex. A brand new generator hums away in a nearby shed, explaining the constant electricity I noted on my last few visits. We file into the meeting room which fills up fast. I know a lot of the people here, which I suppose isn’t surprising.

Chris Nungester sits behind us with a friend who is going to translate for her. I beg her to talk loudly so we can listen in. Neither Margarette or Sonia have the peculiar skill of listening in one language and repeating what they hear in another at the same time. I can assure you from personal experience that it’s a LOT harder than it looks!

The meeting, once it begins, is just as contentious as I had expected. Most of the crèche directors have not accepted the new policies. Some of the terms feel offensive to them – particularly the prohibition restricting licensed agencies from sending post-placement reports directly to the crèches. After caring for a child for one or two years or even longer, these people have a vested interest in knowing how each child fares. I’ve read those regulations carefully. They do state that we agencies are FORBIDDEN to send those official post-placement reports to the crèches. But I sure don’t see anything forbidding a friendly letter and photo exchange, so that’s what I plan to beg all of my families to provide as a kindness to those who give so much to help their children when they need it the most.

I so wish I could speak French! At one point in the meeting, a crèche director makes a statement, Mme. Villedrouin responds, and suddenly fifty people are on their feet shouting at her in French. When things finally quiet down enough that I can make myself heard, I ask Margarette what happened. Apparently the crèche director told Mme. Villedrouin that when they send children home to biological families whose situations have not changed, they are dead within three months. Mme. Villedrouin replied that that was not true, and that is why everyone is shouting. It is true, and they’ve all seen it. It’s possible to insulate yourself from some of the raw suffering of Haiti, but most of the people in this room have chosen not to do so.

This moment during the meeting is forever frozen in my mind, given what happened later this night.

After the meeting I speak very briefly with the young woman from the Hague Permanent Bureau. I’m lucky – her English is impeccable. She and I have similar concerns about what I consider the most critical issues in the new policies, and it’s reassuring to hear that the HPB is communicating the very message to IBESR regarding those issues that I would speak myself, given the opportunity.

As the HPB lady says, “Change is hard.” They’ve seen resistance to new policies before. Perhaps I’m a perpetual optimist, but I believe that this change can be good overall, despite the early difficulties of implementation.

So we left the meeting at peace, in blissful ignorance of what was happening for one of our little ones...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Official Meetings and Opinionated Women

Sterline Giggles
Meetings day. I go to see both Department of State and United States Immigration and Citizenship Services at the U.S. Embassy. DOS has had a complete staff turnover since my last visit, and I have not been ‘passed down’. This means that I must explain (again) what my position with the Joint Council means and what I can do to assist DOS in their work.

DOS has a new young woman specifically assigned to the orphan Visa cases. It is a tremendous responsibility to be the absolute last barrier between illegal adoption and a child leaving Haiti without the proper procedures being followed.

My next meeting is much more casual. The USCIS Field Office Director and I have met many times over the years. He’s really, really good at his job. After ten years I’ve seen a variety of Field Office Directors come and go. They have ranged from fearful and ineffective to absolutely heroic. This one is cautious, a stickler for proper procedure, and also very compassionate. It’s a shame that he won’t be permanent either.

We discuss the new IBESR policies, the new laws, and rumors of incorrect adoptions processing. We are both hopeful that the required involvement of Hague accredited agencies in all adoptions from here on out will protect adoptive parents as well as Haitian children.

I return to the guest house to find a message from the Crèche Directors Association sent to a number of our colleagues. There will be a meeting at IBESR tomorrow for the crèche directors and the visiting Hague Permanent Bureau delegation. I have a feeling that it will be highly charged and contentious. It will also be conducted in French, which means I’ll understand about every third word.

I give Gladys Thomas, who is the President of the Crèche Directors’ Association, a call to discuss a variety of matters, and she encourages me to crash the meeting even though she won’t be present. I can’t refuse an invitation like that – I’ll be there!

We go to BRESMA again to amuse the kids and ourselves, and I focus on getting good photos for waiting families. There are kids here who like to be photographed even less than I do, so it’s a real challenge. It’s fun to watch how they react to Marg. Some people just understand children!

Diana Boni, Chareyl Moyes, Marg Harrington, and Kathi Juntunen
In the evening we head up to the rebuilt Hotel Montana for a meeting of Haiti warriors. I had planned to meet Chareyl Moyes of Wasatch adoptions before I ever came on this trip, but we’ve expanded the party. Of course I’m bringing Marg along, and Chareyl has a treat for me – she’s bringing Kathi Juntunen of Chances for Children. It’s absolutely thrilling for me to meet another American running an orphanage in Haiti the right way. Chances for Children is properly licensed and aware that their first duty is to keep families intact. Kathi earns a LOT of frequent flyer miles making sure that funds go where they’re supposed to go and human lives are handled with care.

Our supper is long and highly opinionated and joyful, as might be expected when bringing together four women who have dedicated their entire lives to doing things the hard way.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Road Construction

The New Building
As usual, I’m hitting the ground running. This time I am travelling with Marg Harrington of Sunrise Family Services, BC, Canada. This is Marg’s first trip to Haiti, but certainly not her first international trip. She’s been all over the world!

We arrived yesterday afternoon, and Marg told me that Port-au-Prince reminds her of cities in developing nations all over the world. Today it hardly reminds me of itself. The new mayor of Delmas seems to be very civically minded. There is massive road construction everywhere. In my ten years of visiting Haiti, I’ve seen occasional pot hole filling. This is major construction: bulldozers, steamrollers, dump trucks! Concrete roadways! Amazing!

At the moment it’s a dusty disaster – the air is so choked that at times it’s hard to see, and no one has set up any ‘ti komers’ (streetside vending) by the sides of these roads. But it’s going to be worth the temporary mess to have real, paved roads in Port-au-Prince.

We’ve heard a rumor that there’s a Dispensation list at IBESR. Because this is Haiti, we’re going there to read it for ourselves. That’s just the way it is. Marg decides to tag along. I will try to introduce her to the IBESR executive staff and she can get a look at where it all happens.

As always, the building is crowded and busy. Unfortunately the staff to whom I had hoped to introduce Marg are all gone, meeting with the Hague Permanent Bureau staff who are here from Holland this week. Margarette ducks into the adoptions unit room to read the list. She returns with good news and bad news – three AUBE kids are out. Two have been waiting for almost a YEAR. Unfortunately one BRESMA sibling group of three who has waited just as long is not on the list. There is nothing we can do – it’s very frustrating, and once again I’m about to face these kids and tell them I don’t know when their adoption will be finished.

Marg and I peek into a few offices. UNICEF has built up IBESR over the past few years. There is now electricity all of the time, and many of the offices have a computer or two. But there is still much lacking, even such simple things as domain-based email (as in, IBESR is in urgent need of technical assistance given with respect and focus on their needs as a department of a sovereign government.

Next, we’re off to BRESMA. Our new construction is almost finished. It’s been almost finished for a long, long time… This reminds me of when we had a house built for us once, long ago. It seems like the finish work took longer than building the darn thing. But it’s going to be spectacular when it’s done. Clean, bright, spacious, and safe.

We climb the many stairs of our hillside property to enter the old building at the top floor, where the little ones stay. As always, I’m struck by how wrong this is. Like a daycare center where no parents ever come. All those little eyes. All those warm little bodies. Every one of them fed and cared for and dressed in pretty clothes and lacking what they need more than any of what we give them – a family.

Marg is surprised at how many young children we have in care. So am I. We’ve had a lot of new arrivals. I see a lot of red hair and fragile, dry, discolored skin. It will fade with time and nutrition, but several of the new children have seen a lot of hardship in a very short time on earth.

Marg and Friends