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Painful limbo for parents adopting Haitian kids

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, hundreds of adoptive parents in the U.S. have no way of knowing whether the Haitian children they have bonded with are alive or dead. They're terrified that food and water will run out for their kids, and that the cumbersome adoption process in Haiti will become even longer.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Parents who make the foray into international adoptions often endure a peculiar form of purgatory that involves waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more. Janelle Benedict thought she’d have escaped her purgatory by Tuesday, the day of her soon-to-be-adopted daughter’s second birthday. Instead, she sat in her California home eating birthday cake alone.

Then news of the earthquake in Haiti hit. Benedict’s 2-year-old little girl lives in Haiti, and Benedict — already dejected — came unglued.

“I was just shaking,” Benedict recalled. “Just hysterical. Just — I don’t think there’s any way I can describe it.”

As the vicious earthquake roiled the impoverished island nation and communication with Haitian orphanages evaporated, Benedict, her husband and hundreds of other adoptive parents in the United States found themselves adrift in a sea of helplessness.

Unlike adoptions in many other countries, where parents learn the identities of their children rather late in the process, Haitian adoptions typically match parents up with children near the beginning. That gives parents the opportunity to travel to Haiti multiple times during the adoption process to spend time with their children and bond with them.

The waiting game had been hard enough before Tuesday’s earthquake, with parents worrying daily about malnourished sons and daughters they had already come to know quite well. But since the earthquake, many have no way of knowing whether their children are alive or dead.

For parents who have gotten word that their children are still alive, the worries are far from over. They’re terrified that food and water supplies will run out for their already compromised kids, and they’re filled with dread that the lengthy and cumbersome adoption process in Haiti is about to become much longer.

“Unfortunately a lot of adoption paperwork has been lost,” said Heather Breems, who coordinates adoptions from Haiti for the Illinois-based agency Adoption-Link. “If we can’t find another way around this process, my guess is [adoptions] will be on hold until all the agencies get back up and running. That could be a very, very long time.”

Cutting through the red tape?The U.S. State Department told msnbc.com that it is working with the Department of Homeland Security to determine how to handle the cases of the 254 Haitian children who are in the process of being adopted into U.S. homes. (Adopting parents are encouraged to send pertinent information to AskCI@state.gov; see “Haiti adoption resource links” sidebar for additional details.)

Members of the House and Senate are taking up the causes of constituents who have been waiting to bring their legally adopted children home; some have been arguing for emergency visas and passports for adopted kids affected by the earthquake.

Benedict, the mother of the little Haitian girl who turned 2 on the day of the quake, had completed the entire adoption process, but had been waiting for the Haitian government to issue a passport for her daughter, whose name is Lovely. Once she had a passport, the U.S. government could grant a visa that would allow Lovely to relocate to the States.

“Of course, it’s impossible to obtain a passport for her from Haiti right now with the infrastructure there,” Benedict explained, spotlighting one of her deepest fears.

But on Thursday, Benedict received word from the State Department that the possibility of issuing humanitarian visas to children in her daughter’s situation is being explored.

“It’s really hopeful, hopeful news,” she said, bursting into tears of relief and exhaustion. She had learned only two hours earlier that her daughter and other children at her daughter’s orphanage were still alive.

Lovely is a cutie who has absolutely smitten her parents. She is the first child that Benedict, 33, and her husband Bryan Benedict, 39, have tried to adopt. The Torrance, Calif., couple have four biological children; they began the adoption process about a year and a half ago.

“I’ve gone and spent a week with her three times,” Benedict said. “She is just the sweetest little thing. She’s beautiful. She cuddles. And when you play music she likes to dance, which is so cute.”

But Lovely is lagging behind developmentally because of malnutrition and parasites.

“She’s 2, but she’s just recently started crawling and barely started standing and taking a few steps,” Benedict said. “She’s very tiny ... She only weighs 15 pounds because of malnutrition. But I think she will grow quickly once she gets home and gets proper food and medical attention.”

Waiting for word
Other parents caught in adoption limbo have no idea whether their Haitian children are still living. For days, Jan Schumacher, 52, a registered nurse at a wound clinic in Wilmington, Ohio, was desperate to receive information about her 11-year-old son Charly in Port-au-Prince. She’s been so frantic that she’s been struggling to travel to Haiti as a nurse with a relief organization.

Charly Schumacher with his adoptive mom.

“I don’t even know how he is now,” Schumacher said Thursday night. “I don’t know if he’s alive. ... I haven’t been able to find out if anyone’s hurt at his orphanage.”

It wasn’t until Friday that she finally got word from the orphanage that Charly and the other children there are alive. The people who work at the orphanage have been overwhelmed trying to find food, fuel and water at a very high cost as they deal with a crush of people coming to them for help.

Schumacher and her husband Paul, 55, have two biological daughters as well as one adopted child from Haiti, a 10-year-old boy named Ely.

“We take in kids healing from surgeries and give them a place to stay while they recover,” she explained.

Ely’s adoption went relatively smoothly; Charly’s did not. Charly, who was burned in a kerosene-lamp fire as a young boy, came to the States at age 5 for treatment at the Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati. He lived with the Schumachers for a year, then returned to Haiti when his medical visa expired.

“That was a nightmare, sending him back,” Schumacher recalled. “He was screaming and clinging and didn’t want to leave with the Haitian stewardess.”

The Schumachers have been trying to finalize Charly’s adoption since 2005, when he was 6. Their efforts have been blocked by one paperwork glitch after another, one technicality after another. Schumacher last saw Charly in March 2009, in Port-au-Prince.

“He can’t speak English anymore,” she said. “He spoke English when he lived with us ... We talk on a cell phone every now and then, and he just says, ‘I love you, Mama,’ and he cries.

“They’re just a tough people. They’re used to disappointment day after day after day. But this?”

‘We’ve been very emotional tonight’
Haiti was estimated to have 380,000 orphans in 2007, and that number is expected to skyrocket in the wake of the earthquake. Such tragic statistics can make the 254 adoptions in the pipeline for U.S. families sound minuscule. But one family in Kansas has a different perspective.

Tim and Alecia O’Byrne have been trying for years to adopt four children — two sets of siblings — from Haiti. Initially they set out to adopt only one child, but once they heard the siblings’ stories, they decided to try to take them all home.

Tim O’Byrne, 55, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Holton, Kan., said the children were 1, 3, 10 and 11 when the adoption process began.

“In our minds we were thinking [of the 11-year-old] that we’ll have this young man when he’s about 12 or maybe 13. But now he’s 16,” O’Byrne said. “Same thing with our little girl — she was 1 when this began and now she’s 5.

“Since November 2008, all four of them have had our last name and have officially been our children. It’s just been one holdup after another.”

But late Thursday night, the O’Byrnes were stunned to get this news: The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has approved allowing all four children to be flown to the States, possibly as soon as this weekend.

“We’ve been crying,” O’Byrne said. “We’ve been very emotional tonight ... We’re excited, ecstatic.

“All these children have all got their passports and they have all been to the embassies but had not had their visas approved yet, and then the earthquake hit. Everything had been pretty much done but the visas ... I never would have thought that an earthquake would be what it would take to push this through.”

TODAYshow.com producer Sarika Dani contributed to this report.