Prospective parents grow more worried about Haiti's orphans

Date: 2010-01-15

By N.C. Aizenman

Between 800 and 900 of the children were in the process of being adopted by families in the United States. An additional 1,500 had been matched with European families, mostly in France and the Netherlands.

The remaining children include many who might not technically be orphans but whose families could not afford to care for them, said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, a Washington-based child welfare organization that has taken the lead on negotiating their status with U.S. authorities.

So far, there have been no reports of deaths at orphanages, DiFilipo said. But many of Haiti's orphanages, which include 177 official government-approved facilities and 200 or so ad hoc groups providing care, remain unaccounted for. Those that have sent news often describe dire conditions.

"We're getting e-mails and texts from orphanage directors saying, 'We're out of water, our roads are blocked. We made it to the market, and there was nothing there because there was so much looting,' " DiFilipo said. "I can't put into words how worried I am. 'Extremely' doesn't cut it. It's at a crisis stage."

Although all Haitians in the earthquake zone require assistance, DiFilipo added, children in orphanages are among those with the toughest odds of survival.

"They don't have a next-door neighbor to lend them a hand. They don't have an aunt to bring them into their home or a grandmother to hold their hand and comfort them," he said. "They have a few people in an orphanage, and that's it."

Like many U.S.-based liaisons to Haitian orphanages, Diana Boni has been frantically alerting every humanitarian aid group she can think of to the plight of the orphanage she works with, BRESMA in Port-au-Prince. The nonprofit group cares for 150 children ranging from babies and toddlers to 13-year-olds.

One of the BRESMA's three concrete-block houses completely collapsed. A second was so badly damaged that the children are sleeping on the lawn outside. The third building emerged intact but is now crammed with the children from the first house.

Directing aid workers to the site is a challenge in a neighborhood that was hard to navigate even before the quake.

"I'm giving directions like, 'Go up the hill on Delmas where the Caribbean market used to be and turn left," said Boni, 39, who lives in South Dakota and is Haiti program coordinator for Kentucky Adoption Services, a nonprofit group.

By Friday afternoon, Boni's voice was hoarse from worry and lack of sleep. One of the houses was provided for, but if help doesn't reach the other soon, she said in a tearful whisper, "I'm out of water tonight."

Then her computer chirped with an e-mail arrival. "It looks like a CNN crew has arrived there!" she exclaimed. "I hope they've brought water."

For prospective parents in the United States, the wait for news has been equally excruciating.

Andrea Vanderhoff of Pella, Iowa, was thrilled to hear from an ABC news crew that a boy and his sister she has been waiting to adopt through the Central Texas Orphan Mission Alliance were safe.

But "once that ABC crew leaves, there's going to be no one there," she said fretfully. "These are orphans. They have no one."

During the two years that Vanderhoff and her husband have been waiting for the adoption paperwork to go through, they have visited the children multiple times.

"They are already calling us Mama and Papa," she said. "If we need to fly there to get them, I would do it today, but right now it doesn't sound like they would let us in."

In an effort to better coordinate relief efforts, the Joint Council on International Children's Services has started a database of orphanages and known orphans on its Web site,

The group hopes the list will eventually help it expedite moving the orphans from Haiti to the United States and Europe. The easier cases are ones in which the adoptions were already approved by Haitian authorities and the children were awaiting a U.S. or European visa. More complicated is the situation of children who were matched with a family but whose adoption had not yet been certified.

In an e-mail Friday, Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said, "We understand the deep concern these prospective adoptive parents feel about the welfare of these children, and we are actively working to identify available options in light of the recent tragedy."


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