Edgewater woman finds Haitian adoption as unstable as country
As they wait for their first meal together at a restaurant in Haiti, Robin Garland watches her soon-to-be daughter unfold countless squares of butter and lap them up like candy.
Jennifer Casanave, 6, doesn't know she should spread the butter on her dinner rolls. But as the bread arrives at the table she voraciously eats that, too. The 33-pound Haitian girl says little to her prospective mother during the meal, not knowing enough English to later communicate why she's sobbing after their chicken and pasta dinner.
A waiter translates the girl's Creole cries for Garland.
"Her stomach hurts," he told her. "She's eaten too much food."
Jennifer has lived in a Petionville orphanage for 2 1/2 years. Her father relinquished his parental rights because he couldn't afford to feed her anymore.
The next day Garland also cries. After only spending one day with Jennifer on her sixth birthday in August, she must say goodbye. Her tears are for the unknown.
Hovering in an airplane above the war-torn country plagued by poverty and starvation, she hopes for stability at the girl's orphanage and a smooth adoption process. It may take two years to complete it and have Jennifer sleeping in her own room in Edgewater, curled up in the colorful polka dot bedspread Garland's mother bought for her.
"I'm only halfway through the adoption," said Garland, 47, who returned from another visit to Haiti last month. "If I'm lucky, I'll have her home for Christmas."
After attempting to adopt domestically and failing on her last try when a 16-year-old girl decided to keep the baby, Garland, who is single, turned to international adoption about a year and a half ago.
Haitian adoptions were moving quickly at the time, but as periods of lawlessness erupt and turnover in government staff continues, the process has become painfully slow. Long known as one of the least developed countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is a nation of about 490,000 orphans, according to UNICEF, the United Nation's child protection agency.
Garland has faith Jennifer will be one less child on that list.
AN ORPHAN LIFE
In Petionville, Jennifer, a shy, reserved girl, is one of about 50 children staying in a four-bedroom house called A New Arrival Children's Center. Garland asked for a preschool-age child, but agreed to look at information about Jennifer, who was 5 at the time. She stared at her photo for nearly a month as she thought about her decision.
"It's like I had bonded with her just from her picture," she said.
Last month, she visited her for the second time and brought several new outfits. But Jennifer had other plans for the clothing.
"She was dressing up all the other kids," said Garland, a hospital nursing assistant. "She's like a momma."
With so many children in an undersized building, some sleep in beds in the hallway. They learn English in a small schoolroom. There is no running water here. Meals are cooked outside with propane, and electricity is only available at the facility for about four hours a night.
In between power outages, Orphanage Director Rock Cayo uses a generator and power inverter. Despite the hardships, he said in a recent e-mail that the facility feels like "home."
"They have people who love them, feed them, shower them, play with them . . ." he said. "This is family. Sometimes it's fun; some other times it's hard. That is life."
During Garland's March visit, youngsters at the orphanage surrounded her. Some, starved for attention, wanted to be held and hugged. Garland indulged them as Jennifer looked on with jealous tears.
"She was crying because in her mind I was her mom," she said. "But what was I supposed to do?"
Garland left the orphanage that day bound for home, not knowing what troubles would lie ahead for the girl's country. Within three weeks of her visit, she opened an e-mail from the adoption agency, detailing the beginnings of food riots that broke out earlier this month.
Youngsters normally receive snacks and three meals a day, consisting of goat or beef, black beans and rice. During the riots, Cayo said the orphanage experienced a food shortage but "managed." Rice was up to $80 for a 100-pound bag, while a gallon of gasoline was selling for $6.
"Last week was the first time we have seen something like that happen (in Petionville)," Cayo said.
The town, considered a wealthy suburb where most of Haiti's political and economic elite live, is in the hills east of the nation's capital, Port-au-Prince. During the riots, Cayo said storefronts and car windows were smashed, tires were set ablaze and there were some roadblocks "but not much damage."
With the protests now mostly over, Lori Jones, executive director of the orphanage's parent organization, A New Arrival Adoption Agency, hopes the recent ousting of the country's prime minister will make a difference in the adoption system's red tape.
"We've never had a failed adoption in Haiti," she said from agency headquarters in Twin Bridges, Mont. "But about three years ago, the adoptions were processing in six to nine months."
Now, it could take 16 to 24 months. According to the U.S. Department of State immigrant visa statistics, Haitian adoptions to U.S. families have been on a decline. In 2004, about 356 were adopted from Haiti. Last year, there were only 190.
"Haiti, by far, is one of the most difficult countries we've ever had to work in," said Jones, whose agency has worked in 13 other countries.
It's especially upsetting because nearly all the children in the orphanage have new moms and dads waiting for them in America, she said. The most recent adoption occurred in November.
Jones said most of the delays have to do with the nation's political instability. The changes in government staff and officials tend to slow the processing of applications.
But Jones also said UNICEF could be affecting the pace of adoptions. She said UNICEF is expressing concern to government officials about the possibility of child trafficking and a high number of adoptions.
"I do believe that they have met and have tried to influence one side of a very complicated process," Jones said.
Geoffrey Keele, a UNICEF spokesman, said while the agency makes it a priority to reunite children with their families in their country of origin, it has never opposed international adoptions.
"Our viewpoint is that families need to be supported so they can remain together as much as possible," he said. "We just want to make sure that there is always a need for appropriate safeguards and transparency in these adoption processes."
For Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law School professor who has written extensively about adoption, there is a disturbing trend among the declining inter-country adoptions over the last three years. She also blames UNICEF, saying the organization is "vigorously" opposing international adoption by encouraging countries to be more restrictive.
"They basically do not seem to see it as one of the appropriate solutions for children in need," she said.
THE WAITING ROOM
Back in Edgewater, Garland continues to follow Haitian news closely and make preparations for Jennifer. She affectionately calls her Jenna for short, and has made plans to change the girl's name to Aliyah Belle Jennifer Garland.
Garland chose Aliyah — the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel — in honor of a 101-year-old woman she nursed, who left her money to donate to a fund to help Jews go to Israel. The name Belle comes from a niece who died and formerly owned the house Jennifer will live in.
Over the last few months, the modest home has been slowly outfitted for Garland's new addition to the family. She painted the girl's room yellow and hung a Hello-Kitty face on the wall. A small doll lies on the dresser, which has some clothes inside, but not too many in case Jennifer's size changes between now and her homecoming.
Still hurt from a failed domestic adoption, Garland only makes periodic efforts to finish the bedroom — taking her time to paint and sew a curtain only after certain papers in Haiti were approved. She still has to make pillowcases for the bed.
"My quest for a child has been unbelievable," Garland said, sounding exhausted.
She goes in there and sighs sometimes, wondering when Jennifer will be at her side.
By the Numbers
According to the Department of State, the recent U.S. immigrant visa statistics for Haitian orphans show a decline. Here are the numbers:
190 in 2007
309 in 2006
234 in 2005
356 in 2004
250 in 2003
How to Help
A New Arrival Adoption Agency in Montana is the parent organization of the orphanage in Haiti. To help with funding and the future construction of a new orphanage facility that will house about 150 children, visit the organization's Web site at www.haitiorphan.org or call 888-989-0600. Donations may also be sent to A New Arrival at P.O. Box 445, Twin Bridges, MT 59754.
Children in Crisis
Youngsters in Haiti face numerous struggles:
· Haiti has the highest rate of maternal and infant (under age 5) mortality in the Western Hemisphere. The leading causes of death are diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
· About 60 percent of people — primarily in rural areas — lack access to basic health care services.
· Only a little more than half of primary school-age children are enrolled in school. Less than 2 percent finish secondary school.
· About 5.6 percent of people ages 15 to 49 are living with HIV/AIDS in Haiti.