Monday, January 20, 2014

Last Day Miracle

Bonndye Bonn!
Normally there’s nothing exciting to write about my travel days, but today is an exception.  Today, the American Airlines lounge at the Port-au-Prince airport feels electric with joy and expectations.  Today, seven children from GLA and their new families are waiting for flights out and home.

I’ve been doing this work for ten years.  I’ve seen hundreds of orphaned and abandoned children placed in loving, permanent families.  But it still feels like a miracle every time.  Today, the very air of the crowded, dirty airport lounge is thick with Divine grace.  Seven children, going home!  God is good.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Good Versus Ugly

Looking at an Album from Home
Finally – time to visit AUBE!  It always seems like I have a huge span of time stretching out before me when I arrive, but then my visit flies by before I can even begin to accomplish everything I wanted to do.

Sonia picks me up with all five members of the ABI family who is here for their socialization visit, and we all pile in, squeezed tight!  It’s fortunate that both the mother of the family and I are petite or we might be in trouble.

AUBE is the same as ever.  Noisy, happy, busy.  I say hello to
The Boys' Club of AUBE
everyone and make a special effort to try to get photos of the children going to ABI families.  It’s fun to watch children develop.  AJ was my best buddy when he first came here as a baby.  He couldn't wait to crawl over and suck vigorously on my knee.  Perhaps he found the color intriguing?  In any case, he obviously recognized me and enjoyed my visits.  Until just a few times back, when he took one look at me and ran for shelter, screaming!!  Ah, stranger anxiety.  After a few visits of terrorizing the poor child with my very existence, I can now coax a shy smile.  Perhaps next time, he’ll be happy to see me.  And better yet, the time after that, perhaps he won’t be here at all.

The visiting girls play with the girls of AUBE.  It’s amazing how many games they can make up with no shared language.  There are some real friendships developing here.  The biological children of the adoptive family will be forever changed by their experience here.  I think that’s a good thing.  They’ll understand more about where their brother came from, and perhaps have bigger hearts and more open minds than they could have developed if they had never seen for themselves that there are children living without family.  The three of them are certainly brightening the lives of the waiting children today.

New Baby Girl
Eventually, Sonia gives us all another crowded ride home.  The son of the visiting family who must stay behind in the orphanage, separated from his future family by a spider web of red tape, watches after us wistfully.  It’s hard today.  It’s going to get worse every day that the family must visit and then leave him again.  The socialization period has a major downside for everyone involved.  Adoptive parents are going to have to be very strong to leave their children behind for months while we complete the legal processing on their cases.  It’s awful.  I know.  I’ve been there too.

With the last few hours of time in Haiti, I hitch a ride over to Hope House.  Haiti Foundation Against Poverty is the parent organization of Hope House.  It is run by Frentz and Mallery Neptune.  Mallery is an American who came to work and eventually married Frentz.  They’ve just returned to Haiti with their new baby.  HFAP runs a license crèche, but their main focus is on family preservation.  They run a great many medical and dental clinics to benefit the community, and even provide family planning assistance.  This is a model Haitian aid organization, which distributes the fund entrusted to them directly to the people of Haiti, led by Haitians.

Inside Hope House
Their new building for the children is light, airy, and beautiful!  They have several children in care who were removed from an American-run orphanage.  It is very upsetting to see a twelve pound two year old who was in care there since infancy.  There is no excuse…  She is recovering now, but who knows if she will ever reach her full potential?  Mallery and I are beyond furious, and hoping that someday justice will be done.  We are ashamed that one of our countrymen could come here and abuse and neglect Haitian children on ‘our’ dime.  Americans supported this travesty.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Yet Again, Up the Mountain...

Future Stand-up Comedian
Three trips up the mountain in one week.  I’m practically a commuter now!

Dr. Bernard called me last night wanting to discuss a few very challenging cases that have transferred to New Life Link.  We know they have falsified documents in their dossiers from the crèche that assembled them.  I brief him on what I know USCIS can and cannot allow.  Hopefully my information will be enough for him to be able to get these families out of the nightmare that they are trapped in and bring the children home.  Dr. Bernard was always a proponent of independent adoption, and I assure him that under the old law the families didn’t technically need an agency, so USCIS cannot insist that they use one.  However, it can be very helpful to have an experienced, knowledgeable, and well connected agency representing you if you have an issue when your case reaches USCIS or DOS.  We’ll see what the families decide to do.

B. has decided to go with Dr. Bernard for her tricky pre-identified adoption.  They make the final arrangements.  B. is talking about wanting to spend a lot of time at New Life Link while she’s waiting.  I encourage her to barter working off her room and board in exchange for teaching while she’s there.  What a blessing she would be to the children at New Life Link!

The BRESMA Depot -
Food for Three Months!
In the afternoon, I go to BRESMA with Margarette.  All of the children are asking for Madam B., hoping she’ll come to teach them again.  I think it’s time to do some fundraising for an outside teacher, trained in more modern and exciting teaching methods to amuse and stimulate the children of BRESMA.  Every time I visit, Margarette swears up and down that she’ll never again accept a child who is over six years old.  But ten years into our relationship, I know that this is the one thing my friend lies about.  She’ll take in those who need her care, regardless of their ages or how much more difficult it is.  That’s why she does this work in the first place- because the need is great.

I give a few older children their case status updates, meet a few new kids, check over the poor health of two little ones transferred here from a crèche that did not feed them properly.  A few more photos and I’m done, and I tell the children I’ll be back again in a few months.  I say goodbye to those I hope never to see again living in this place.  Bittersweet, but mostly sweet.  After all, children belong in families.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Day Off

A day off, of sorts.  I meet my old friend A. for lunch at a restaurant that serves Middle Eastern food, of all things.  And it’s really good! 

I ride with A. to pick up her son at Union School, one of three elite English schools in the city.  The mixture of children coming out is fascinating.  About half of the students are children of the Haitian elite, and the other half are those of internationals working or living in Haiti.  The pickup area is a Babel of languages and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities.

Interesting to think that all races and nationalities are equal here, united by their economic status and all other considerations pushed aside.

Sonia picks me up at A.’s house.  I’d love to stay longer to ask ten thousand questions of the two other mothers who are here for a combined kid/mother play date, but I fear it might be awkward for Sonia.  Not only is she intimidated by A.’s four enormous dogs, but I wonder if the other women (besides A., of course) might not treat her as an equal.  We would be speaking English, in which Sonia is not comfortable, and perhaps she’s not in their social strata.  Economically, I know for darn sure that I’m not, but my white skin and American passport give me automatic entrée to the highest levels of Haitian society.  It’s not fair.  But then, so little in Haiti was ever fair.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Up the Mountains Again

In the morning we return to BRESMA, where once again my client presents to a very eager class.  School is so valued culturally here, and orphanage life is so repetitive, that they are absolutely primed and ready for any activity that B. has to offer them.  I sit a watch for a while, still amazed at how much a teacher has to know.  It sounds easy, until you try it…  She has all different ages and levels, and everyone is completely absorbed and happy and attentive.  Haitian teaching is all by rote.  To the kids, these activities all feel like play time.

In the afternoon we head up the mountain again, to Bethel Guest House which is the personal home of Dr. Jacob Bernard and also New Life Link orphanage.  Every time I come here I’m amazed once again by the magnificent view from the balconies.

I’ve brought along ABI’s first family to visit Haiti for their two week socialization period.  The K. family has brought along three of their daughters to meet their new baby brother.  The poor girls were eaten alive by mosquitoes last night.  One looks like she’s suffering with the chicken pox!  They are joining us for some novelty and to see the mountain scenery.  The girls are happy and resilient, just as if they were on vacation anywhere else with their parents.  They tell me that they like playing with the other children at the orphanage.  I’m sure it’s mutual.

Boys at New Life Link
Dr. Bernard, B., and I talk about B.’s very complicated pre-identified adoption case, and then Dr. Bernard and I discuss a few other cases that we’re doing together.  I learn why I had to wait for two hours yesterday at IBESR – Dr. Bernard was meeting with Met. Guillaume and several other attorneys downstairs!  We share a good laugh over that one.  They should have just had the three of us join the meeting.

In any case, Dr. Bernard was putting great pressure on IBESR to let out the dossiers that needed Dispensation immediately, as there is no longer any such thing.  As he is in fact an attorney, I suspect that he knows what he’s talking about.  And after this many years, I know darn well that he’ll never drop the subject until justice is served.  Dr. Bernard makes me look like a real pushover.

Times are hard at New Life Link, not that the children know it.  They are as well fed, entertained, and educated as ever.  But all of the crèche directors are feeling the burn as they have to feed and care for children far, far longer than their flat fee child care monies were ever intended to last, and as many of the children in care have not even been matched to families who can help support them.  Many of them are relying on donations to care for children that are eventually going to be referred for adoption, and some of them are having to discontinue valuable outreach programs that served the community and preserved families intact.

I pray for speedy resolution of the deadlock, and renewed world interest in Haiti.  Perhaps this time donors will channel their gifts to the organizations that understand that only Haitians can elevate Haiti.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Serious Good News!

Wasn’t it just yesterday I wrote something about having plans, but not expectations?

Same Age, Different Personalities!
We’re late.  Late by more than half an hour to our meeting with Met. Andolphe Guillaume, head attorney for IBESR.  Being late when you have the first appointment of the day doesn’t really matter, because chances are that the person you’re meeting with is stuck in traffic too, but when you’re a later meeting it can be a problem.

I’m here with my two primary crèche partners, Margarette Saint Fleur and Sonia Andre.  The meeting was originally mostly for me to ask two questions for ABI, but I needed a translator anyway, and these ladies are my partners.  I’m proud to be seen in their company.

The three of us wait for almost two hours for Met. Guillaume to finish the meeting he was drawn into when we failed to show up on time.  We spend much of the time in a front office with two young women.  One has several US adoptive dossiers on her desk.  During this whole time, one woman plays on Facebook and the other does nothing at all, occasionally chatting with people as they come by.  They’re very fortunate that they don’t work for me, and the experience provides an unpleasant glimpse into why IBESR can take so long simply to approve a dossier, a match, an adoption.  I have found the leaders to be very diligent and hard working, but if this is how their support staff operates it’s no wonder the office is plagued with inefficiency.

Finally, Met. Guillaume appears.  He asks us to wait a few more minutes, but I’m not worried about him disappearing again.  This man has demonstrated that he’s trustworthy in the past.  At last we get started.  Met. Guillaume confirms what I was told over the phone by a US Government official yesterday – Haiti did indeed deposit her instrument of ratification of the Hague Convention of International Adoption on December 17th.  It is done.  And praise God, I believe that it was done right.  The new law has been examined by many experts and they believe that it will be considered fully Hague compliant.  In Haiti, the Hague Convention will not be twisted into a weapon to eliminate or minimize international adoption as an option for permanency for orphaned and abandoned children.

I ask about one dossier of ABI’s that was deposited after the new policies took effect, but before the new law was published.  The adoptive mother no longer qualifies to adopt under the new law.  Met. Guillaume tells us that his secretary is conducting an inventory of all the dossiers in IBESR, old and new, some 500 in all.  One of the things they’re looking for is dossiers in exactly this circumstance, caught between laws.  It is his intention to present these cases to the judges to see how they can be handled.  At this point my partner Sonia, who is generally a mild, sweet tempered, and easy going woman, launches into an impassioned speech about the need for older, experience parents for older children.  It makes no sense at all for a fifty-two year old parent to be forbidden to adopt a fourteen-year-old child!  She argues that IBESR can and should make exceptions where they are warranted, just as there are no upper age limits for families adopting biological relatives.  The best interests of the child must be considered first.

I agree with her one hundred percent, but I have no idea if Haitian law makes any provisions for common sense.  I’m hoping that the judges find that it does.

I discuss another agency issue with him, and then all three of us launch in at once: when are referral letters going to start being issued regularly?  Poor man.  He’s a quiet, thoughtful, purposeful person, and having three passionate, frustrated women pushing him at the same time must be somewhat disconcerting.  February, he assures us.  His secretary is supposed to have the inventory of the dossiers complete tomorrow, and very shortly he can start calling crèche directors in for more match-making meetings.  The referrals will be offered only with IBESR’s approval, but with the close coordination of the crèche directors who know the children.  I refrain from leaping out of my seat and cheering.  Margarette gives me a little smile, knowing how much effort I’m making to keep my mouth shut.  I settle for a reverent and heartfelt ‘Mesi Jezi!’ and leave it at that.

The proposed double blind matching system has been haunting me since the day it was first proposed.  An epic failure when it is used for older or special needs children, I’m not sure I could continue under such a method.  In the double blind system, government officials review dossiers of adoptive parents and of children who are legally free for adoption, and match them together, never having met or even spoken to either party.  It has worked in China, with a huge staff of trained social workers placing mostly healthy infants.  In Haiti, where we almost never place a healthy infant, the potential for disaster is undeniable.  Older children, siblings, traumatized and abandoned children, those with medical, developmental, emotional, or psychiatric special needs – all can be best served by crèche directors who know them well partnering directly with program coordinators who have carefully screened and prepared their adoptive families to meet those needs.  It’s still not easy, but parenting a child with challenges that you were aware of in advance is much more feasible than being surprised with a child comes home with issues the family never knew about, planned for, or would have agreed to accept in the first place.
Class at BRESMA

We return to BRESMA, my head still decompressing from the relief of stress, at least for now.  After lunch, I escort my visiting client to BRESMA.  I give her the grand tour and introduce her to the staff.  She has come prepared with teaching supplies and a plan, and my older kids are soon busily engaged with her.  I’m surprised how many shapes, numbers, and colors they know.  They love the attention, stimulation, and activity, and after going around to check on everyone, take a few photos, and say hello, I allow myself just to sit and enjoy watching them.

It has been a good day.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Hit the Ground Running

It’s a good thing I never try to make concrete plans in Haiti, because what comes next is always a surprise.  Or, as one very clever person told me, ‘you can have plans.  Just don’t have expectations.’

I arrived yesterday afternoon and found a small group of Americans at the guest house.  To my surprised, I discovered that they were one of my client families.  We had not expected to run into one another, but we quickly turned a lucky chance into an opportunity to discuss their very complicated case with Margarette.  I decided to accompany them to their I600 filing appointment tomorrow, as theirs is a very complex case and if there’s going to be any arguing, I figure I should be the one to do it.

We arrive on time for the family’s appointment at the Embassy.  I warn them that what is likely to happen is that we’ll be send to the back of the long line, despite the specific time written on their invitation, and that we’ll be late for the appointment.  USCIS expects this as part of the endless friction between the private security company monitoring the outside, and the US Government working inside the Embassy.  This time I am very pleasantly surprised to be asked what time our appointment is, and waved right in!

It’s freezing inside, and I wish I had a jacket.  As often happens, there is another family here to file.  They’re adopting independently, and their interview lasts a long, long time.  My family’s interview is very short.  I accompany them to the window to explain why we’re filing now and how it is still legal even though the older child is already sixteen.  The officer and I have worked together quite a bit before, and she already knew about this odd little loophole so there’s no debate.  Whew.

In between the various trips to the window, two BRESMA staff members come in with a biological mother and two little boys who are being adopted by another one of my families.  The older boy doesn’t seem to remember me.  But the little guy sure does, and he remembers that he does not like me one little bit!  I have to avoid eye contact to prevent him from crying.  He liked me a lot as a baby, but now stranger anxiety has set in and he wants nothing to do with me.

At the Embassy, I also bump into Mike Noah, the Haiti program director for Holt International.  Port-au-Prince really is a visit – this sort of thing is not that unusual.  Mike and I have worked together on multiple trips, usually with the Joint Council of International Children’s Services, and I’m very pleased to see him here by accident.

Mike invites me to accompany him up the hill later on to visit Dixie Bickel at God’s Littlest Angels.  We’re all on the same team here, and I happily accept.

I switch cars and ride home with my staffers, the I600 filing and the I604 interview both having gone very smoothly.  I ask the biological mother of the two boys about her interview.  She seems cheerful, and says that they were kind to her.  She was asked many questions, including whether she’d been given or promised any support, such as money for a house or a business, or tuition for her other children.  She hasn’t.  Although kindness and common sense dictate that providing for the birth parents of adopted children is the right thing to do, it is strictly forbidden.

In many ways, I don’t like the policy, but it does make sense.  I’ve seen it happen.  A family who adopted independently sent money to the birth mother of one of their daughters after she went home to the United States.  Five hundred dollars bought the woman a house and established her in comfort.  But all of her neighbors knew where the money came from.  There were two reactions: many of her neighbors believed that she had sold her daughter, and reviled her.  The others still thought that she had sold her daughter, but that it had been a very wise move.  They also decided to relinquish their children for adoption, even though some of them could have supported them.  By attempting to ease the suffering of one Haitian woman, the well-meaning American family prompted the separation of multiple Haitian families that might have stayed together otherwise.

I eat lunch at the guest house, and as ever Sherley has prepared enough food for a small army.  It’s useless to point out that I can’t eat this much at fewer than three meals – she’ll cook the way she wants to.  I’m not complaining about the quality, only the quantity she expects me to put somewhere.

Mike and Holt’s new orphanage director, Beverly Sannon, come by to pick me up.  We speak mostly English in the car, with Beverly, Mike, and I all giving directions to our driver.  It’s truly a miracle that we ever find GLA at all!  At least the driver has a sense of humor about it.  He and Beverly work together to process cases for Holt, so they’re colleagues and equals.

As ever, GLA is peaceful, beautiful, and welcoming.  It’s so much cooler and quieter up here.  And once we’re inside, the concrete walls block out the rocket of the generator.  We all crowd into Dixie’s office, which is filled with her desk, chairs, files, supply cabinets, and her enormous blue merle great dane curled up under her second desk.

Dixie had a meeting yesterday with Mme. Villedrouin.  It would appear the general consensus is that Dispensation is a thing of the past, and that all of the dossiers that have been sitting and waiting far, far too long for that one signature should be released shortly.  ABI doesn’t have any families stuck waiting for Dispensation – just blind luck, as Dispensations are issued completely at random – but many of our friends and partners do, and we are all desperate for their release and completion.

I leave the office so that Mike and Dixie can discuss some potential matches for some of her special needs cases.  I wander around, and see a few babies that I met here in October who are unrecognizable, they have grown so much.  The rooftop playground is occupied by GLA volunteers, performing their assigned ‘work’ of playing with the babies and toddlers.  Everyone is having a great time.  It’s rejuvenating just to spend a few minutes with them, chatting about their experience in Haiti thus far.

Next we drive over to the toddler house, which is no longer aptly named.  Ever since GLA took in a large number of children from a horrendously neglectful orphanage, this is a more of a big kid house.  There’s no room to move the toddlers over.  IBESR has promised Dixie that she will be able to send some of these children back to their families soon, and I hope they will.  It is fortunate that GLA is well sponsored, feeding so many extra children for a year and a half thus far.

Here I meet another ABI family.  They’re adopting a pre-school age boy, and this is their court and I600 filing trip.  They are the last family that GLA and ABI will serve under the old laws and policies.  They are enjoying their son and their trip, and all seems to be well.  I spend a few minutes talking with them and observing the child.  I agree with GLA’s staff – he’s a smart little guy!  And a good match for experienced parents.  Busy, active, intelligent, and determined, he’ll give them a run for their money.

Finally we descend back into the noise, smog, and clogged traffic of Port-au-Prince. 

At the guest house I meet another ABI parent, travelling with her father.  This woman and her husband worked in Haiti for three years, and she has fascinating stories about little cultural differences between Port-au-Prince and Port-au-Pais, where they lived.

Finally I turn in, fingers crossed for a successful IBESR meeting tomorrow.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Our Experience & Advice : Adopting older children from Haiti

(The following guest post was written by a family who adopted two children from BRESMA orphanage.)

Adoption was never in our grand plan.  My husband and I had two children at home and one already grown.  We were only exploring a monthly sponsorship online.  But then that picture came on the screen:  that 8-year-old girl; that sheepish smile; those crazy braids!  Looking back we can see that God had planted the seed long before that moment, because it only took one evening to decide that we were meant to adopt ~ not just one, but two children since we would be bringing them to the upper Midwest with so little diversity.  They would always have someone there who shared their culture and experience.


Yes, we had the same reservations all families have when considering adoption of older children.  What tough experiences would they be bringing to our home?  Would they be too old to bond with us emotionally?  How would an older boy treat our younger, more sensitive son?  What about all those years of missed education?  But the questions we could not get out of our minds were these:  What would happen to them if they were NOT adopted?  Didn’t we want to continue at the stage we were already at with our children, rather than going back to preschool years?  Wouldn’t older kids bond much better with our other older children at home? 

Fast forward 6 months as we arrived to the orphanage to meet our two new children:  that crazy braided 8-year-old girl from the initial picture and the most tender-hearted nearly 9-year-old boy.  They couldn’t even stay seated, as directed by the nannies.  Both ran to tackle us to the ground with hugs and squeals.  Since their arrival to our home four years ago, we have noted some things unique to older adoptions that may be helpful to prospective adoptive parents. 


1)      Bonding needs to be more intentional since you are not naturally holding, feeding, and caring for them as you would a younger child.  Eye contact, consistency, close contact reading and playing games, humor, etc. work well and are mutually rewarding.  Be patient and trusting, for it takes a long time. 
2)      Catching them up educationally takes more time and energy in the early years.  Invest in tutoring for all those early educational standards they have missed, so they have the building blocks to move along with same-age peers.  After 3 years or so, they should be about caught up and able to work more independently.    
3)      Socially they need to be with age level peers to learn age-appropriate behaviors.  Maintain those expectations, but understand that they will be well behind peers in maturity for quite some time.  Do not panic when you experience behaviors that might simply be cultural or from the orphanage.  Stick to positive parenting. 
4)      Be open in talking about their memories and experiences in their native country.  Share your thankfulness for their birthparents choice to trust them with you.  Point out specific talents and traits that you guess might be from their birth family.  Fill your home with photos/artwork, foods, and music from their homeland.
5)      Keep in touch with any birth family possible.  Send photo books at regular intervals.  Consider returning to their native country and even possibly planning a reunion with birth family when the child is old enough to understand about the poverty of their country and the reasons behind their adoption.

We just returned from such a reunion in Haiti.  We invited both birth families to our hotel for lunch and a few hours with an interpreter.  Everyone had the chance to share their history and stories.  All of our questions were answered, and the birth parents were able to see how God had answered their prayers.  One birth mother put it best, telling us, “I wish you could climb into my heart to see the joy I feel to see my daughter again.”  After the trip, our adopted son now 13 hugged us hard and said, “Thank you so much for doing this for me!  Everybody is going to be ok.”