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By Scott Farwell
April 10, 2011 / sacbee.com
PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- Of all the haunting images from Haiti - the mangled bodies and macabre mass graves, the rubble and widespread ruin, the homeless camps and crushing poverty - it was the orphans who broke the world's heart.
Wide-eyed, gaunt, cut adrift in a heaving sea of chaos, they were the earthquake's most vulnerable victims.
To Christine Flage of Frisco, Texas, and tens of thousands of other American parents, the answer to the orphan crisis seemed obvious - adoption.
"We can fit more kids in our house, and we can afford to feed them," Flage said at the time. "If everyone would take that approach, we wouldn't have a crisis. It isn't any more complicated than that."
But more than a year later - after a five-day visit to a Haitian orphanage, accepting the title of "mommy" from two girls and calculating the long odds against her - Flage said God has closed the door on the adoptions.
"I love those girls," she said. "But how can I help them if I can't bring them home? That's where we're at."
Nearly 1,100 children were flown out of Haiti under a U.S. humanitarian parole program started immediately after the earthquake. It ended about a year ago.
Since then, only five children have been adopted. The process has ground to a virtual halt amid fears of child trafficking, Haiti's stringent adoption laws, political upheaval and the destruction of critical records.
Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, a place with virtually no industry and where most adults are illiterate.
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the spongy hills ringing Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, it focused the world's attention on the island nation's underlying instability - antiquated building codes, Third World medicine and a history of paralyzing political corruption.
But hope for Haiti's rebirth took root in the midst of the humanitarian disaster.
International goodwill and support flowed into the country like never before.
At the height of the catastrophe in January, more than 600 relief flights a day landed at the Port-au-Prince airport.
Thousands of doctors and nurses, more than $12 million in medical supplies and about $140 million in food arrived in the Caribbean nation, according to reports from USAID, the federal government's relief agency.
In all, international donors pledged more that $9.9 billion in current and future relief.
But soon Haiti began battling familiar problems, and the media's attention turned to a succession of natural disasters - a powerful earthquake in Chile, epic floods in Pakistan, an erupting volcano over Iceland.
Haitians complained the aid was flowing into the pockets of the powerful, jobs were scarce and crime was returning to the streets. Two of the nation's infamous former leaders returned from exile - Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier - stoking fears of a return to despotic rule.
In October, a cholera epidemic sprinted through the nation's homeless camps, killing an estimated 1,700. The next month, five people were killed in rioting after a November presidential election was canceled because of widespread ballot tampering.
In many ways, conditions in Haiti are as austere as ever.
More than 1 million people displaced by the earthquake still live in tents and shantytowns. And nearly all of the nation's estimated 380,000 orphans still await adoption.
John Leininger, a retired San Antonio-area optometrist and founder of Harvest International, has been sponsoring medical relief missions to Haiti for more than 30 years. He said the future for many children is bleaker than ever.
"If it's possible to imagine, things have gotten worse," he said. "Many of these orphanages are very full, and they have cutoffs, and they're just refusing to take more kids."
'THESE WERE OURS'
The Haiti Children's Rescue Mission is a four-story stucco home set against a lush, boulder-studded mountain.
It is the kind of place you hear long before it comes into view.
Christine Flage looked anxious last May as her taxicab eased down a rutted road leading to the orphanage - until she heard children's voices echoing among the banana trees.
"Is that it?" she asked, a whiff of uncertainty in her voice. "Are we there?"
Moments later, she slid aside a rusting metal gate and stepped into a courtyard.
She was greeted by swarming children, a cacophony of Creole and the rancid smell of trash baking in the sun.
In some ways, she had been here before.
In February 2009, Flage and her husband, Brian, a manager for an electricity company, adopted 7-month-old twins from Ethiopia. They had never met the children - Joshua and Glory - before flying to Africa to bring them home. They also have a 7-year-old biological daughter, Katie.
The experience, Flage said, helped demystify the notion of adopting from Haiti.
The couple prayed over 17 pages of children's photos one night. The next morning, her husband came to Flage with pictures of two girls - 14-year-old Mirlange and her 10-year-old sister, Midrene.
He said, "These are the only two I can really imagine in our family."
She was convinced.
"I dreamed about those two girls the whole night before," Flage said. "Out of 17 pages of pictures, we both knew these were ours."
Flage arrived at the orphanage overlooking a Port-au-Prince suburb about two months later.
She walked from room to room, smiling, searching for faces that matched photos of her girls.
Mirlange, the 14-year-old, met her first. They embraced, tears leaking down their faces.
Minutes later, Midrene crawled into Flage's lap. They mostly sat in silence - a language barrier between them.
"Oh sweet baby," she said, stroking the child's back, "how am I going to fill you up?"
Over the next few days, Flage threaded friendship bracelets, sang church hymns and got to know the girls.
Midrene was the needy one, following her from room to room and tugging at her arms to be held. Mirlange was more distant, quiet, often looking down or away when spoken to.
Jean Fritz Nicolas, the orphanage's director, said the girls were found wandering the streets in a nearby town about two years ago. He said they were abandoned by their mother, but he doesn't know about the father.
"Whether their parents are alive or not," he said, "they're orphans."
He said orphans often feel alone after adoption - isolated by language and an unfamiliar culture - but at least they have a chance in the United States.
Flage was resolute, sitting at a dining room table at the orphanage as Midrene braided her hair.
"We're definitely not being naive," she said. "We know they're not just going to give us a big hug and everything is going to be normal. But we're also not scared because we know there are resources out there."
The alternative, she said, is unsettling.
"What are we supposed to say, 'It would be too hard for them to be in our family?' Let them not have a family? Really? I don't believe that," she said.
A SLOW PROCESS
Before the earthquake, about 300 Haitian orphans a year were adopted by U.S. families. The average wait was 24 to 36 months.
But in the first three months after the earthquake, nearly two dozen children from the Haiti Children's Rescue Mission left the country with new families - several from San Antonio. All those children were already in the adoption pipeline before the earthquake.
Flage and others argued that the U.S. government's humanitarian parole program should be extended to children who were not matched to prospective parents before the earthquake.
Child welfare agencies - the United Nations Children's Fund, Save the Children and World Vision - took the opposite view, asking for a moratorium on new adoptions.
They cited fears that child trafficking to the Dominican Republic - for labor, sex trade or indentured servitude - might increase. They also recounted stories from other natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, where children were separated from their parents in the chaos and later discovered in orphanages.
UNICEF has registered 5,088 orphans since the earthquake in Haiti and reunited 1,300 children with their families.
"In the situation we have here now, when the adoption systems are weakened, there will be those who wish to exploit those systems for the wrong reasons," said Edward Carwardine, a spokesman for UNICEF.
"We're not talking about the family in Dallas who wants to do the right thing for these kids, but others, who have much worse intentions."
Adoptions are technically ongoing in Haiti, but the scale of the destruction and ensuing political chaos have paralyzed the system.
Many government buildings containing vital paperwork - birth and death records - were destroyed in the earthquake. To process an adoption, family members must sign papers relinquishing custody.
Rebecca Hackworth, who coordinates Haitian adoptions for Dillon International, said it's a needle-in-a-haystack ordeal. Investigators are sent into villages, from home to home, searching for family members.
"The process is called agony," she said. "You go to the last known community and you just start asking. And you must remember, these are poor people who don't have cellphone numbers."
She said Haitian adoption law is also frustratingly strict.
Prospective parents must be at least 35 and married for at least 10 years without children of their own. Waivers are frequently granted, but each one must be signed by the president of Haiti.
"When most people find out what's involved, and how long it's going to take to do an adoption in Haiti, they just give up," Hackworth said.
"There are countries like Ethiopia that would be faster, and that's what happens in international adoption - people are looking for a program that doesn't take too long."
Not a single child has been adopted from the Haiti Children's Rescue Mission since Flage returned to the United States last spring.
She said Mirlange and Midrene's birth mother would need to be found before an adoption could go forward, but she's not hopeful that will ever happen.
"I couldn't do it alone, and I couldn't get a referral," she said. "I don't know anybody down there. I still think their mother is alive, but I wouldn't begin to known where to track her down."
The Flages volunteered to pay for the girls' schooling, but so far, the orphanage hasn't been able to arrange transportation.
Flage said she doesn't regret the trip to Haiti.
"I would have gone and I would have loved on those girls," she said, "but I wouldn't have wanted them to be told I was bringing them home, because that's devastating."
The Flages sent Mirlange and Midrene a package for Christmas and a note.
"We let them know we love them, and we'll be praying for them in this situation," Flage said.
"We don't know what God's plan is, why we were brought in or what might happen to them. I just don't know."