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Americans rush to adopt orphaned Haitian kids

Tammy Gage cries every time she turns on the TV and sees the devastation in Haiti. She's among many Americans expressing interest in adopting children who have been left orphans from the earthquake. Officials warn that caution is needed in the wake of a natural disaster.
/ Source: TODAY staff and wire

Tammy Gage cries every time she turns on the TV and sees the devastation in Haiti. And though she already has three daughters, she didn't hesitate when her husband suggested that they adopt from Haiti.

“That's all he needed to say,” she said.

Gage and her husband Brad are among many Americans expressing interest in adopting children who have been left orphans from the quake last week. Adoption advocacy groups are reporting dozens of calls a day.

“The agencies are being flooded with phone calls and e-mails,” said Tom Difilipo, president and CEO of the advocacy group Joint Council on International Children's Services. “The response is ‘Can we help with these children by adopting them?’”

The need is vast. Even before Tuesday's deadly magnitude-7.0 earthquake, Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries, had 380,000 orphans, according to UNICEF. There is no counting children newly orphaned by the quake, but aid groups estimate the number in tens of thousands.

“Everybody here and in the world wants to do something. I think it's a way that people are opening up their heads and their hearts,” said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, which has offered temporary housing for children until they are either placed with extended family, put in foster care or adopted.

Caution needed in disaster’s wakeAs great as the interest is in giving Haitian orphans safe, loving homes, U.S. officials and adoption experts warn that great caution is needed. Immediately following a natural disaster, it can be difficult if not impossible to determine whether children truly are orphans.

“The balance needs to be urgency to get children out tempered with caution that the children who do come to the U.S. are children who are meant to come,” said Susan Soonkeum Cox, a vice president with Holt International, an Oregon-based agency that has been arranging foreign adoptions since the 1950s.

“We’ve been flooded by calls from well-meaning people ... but adoption should never be the first line of defense,” Cox explained. “Haiti has lost so much in the last week. We should first try very hard to see whether children can go to extended family members.”

To illustrate the dilemma, Cox posed a theoretical situation: Say a tsunami ravaged the Oregon coast.

“If families were wiped out and there were children left there, we wouldn’t necessarily send them to Canada,” Cox said. “We’d ask: Are there other family members? Maybe they live in Kansas, but are they there?”

Officials with the U.S. State Department have been issuing similar warnings. (See box for details.)

Nevertheless, the interest in Haitian adoptions remains high, and some adoptions already well along in the process have been fast-tracked in response to the earthquake.

This week, 54 orphans arrived in Pittsburgh after a mission that involved officials in the White House, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The orphans will be given medical care and be placed in group homes until their adoptions are finalized.

“We have received quite a few phone calls, including one from as far away as Alaska,” said Clare Kushma, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh. She estimated the number of calls as close to 100, but is referring people to the Allegheny County's Department of Human Services for adoptions.

‘Working around the clock’The road to adoption is a long one, Difilipo said. Most of the orphans who have been brought the U.S. so far were already in the process of being adopted.

Before new adoptions can occur, officials need to establish that the children are identified by the Haitian government as orphans; there have been reports of families selling their children to adoption brokers. And potential families need to be cleared, too.

“All this is a 2-year process minimum,” he said. “Some families have waited five years.”

New solutions may be enacted for these orphans, though, said Mary Robinson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption. Her advocacy group has gotten an offer from Puerto Rico to serve as a resting place for children until they are adopted.

State Department spokesman Darby Holladay said the orphans are one of the highest priorities for the U.S. government.

“We are looking at each and every orphan case individually and we are working around the clock with officials of both Homeland Security and the Haitian government to find solutions,” he said.

He said the U.S. Embassy in Haiti has processed immigrant visas for 46 orphan children whose cases were ready for processing. In addition there have been 100 humanitarian waivers for more than 100 orphans.

Gage, 38, of Stanberry, Mo., said her oldest daughter texted her the phone number of the National Council for Adoption while on the school bus. The family knows that adoption can take a long time, but plans to stick it out.

“Of course the sooner, the better, but I know kind of the process,” she said.

Trying to do something, anythingGage and her husband Brad had discussed adopting before, but she was moved by the devastation in Haiti. “Really, I wanted to get on the next flight out and help these people,” she said.

UNICEF will now work to find children who are alone and determine whether they are orphans or have become separated from family, spokesman Patrick McCormick said. If they have relatives, the agency will work to reunite them. Alternative and long-term options such as international adoption would be an option only after that, New York-based UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick.

All this requires detective work, but it should be done within two months, he said.

Sheila Noel, 36, of Miami, who is from Haiti, says that she called an advocacy group inquiring how she could adopt her 13-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister, who are now being cared for by a friend. Noel said her mother and stepfather were killed in the quake and two more brothers remain missing.

“Right now the little ones I am really concerned about,” she said. She said her siblings were sleeping in parks and she was worried about violence.

“There is no police,” she said. “There is nobody you can go to.”

This story contains information from The Associated Press.