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Reunited: Desperate dad rescues Haitian kids

One of the strongest forces on the planet is parental love. As evidence, consider Brett and Kendra Schlenbaker. The U.S. parents brought their two legally adopted children home from Haiti on Wednesday, benefiting from a change in U.S. policy toward some Haitian orphans.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

One of the strongest forces on the planet — and of life itself — is parental love. As evidence, consider Brett and Kendra Schlenbaker.

When the Bellingham, Wash., parents learned that their two legally adopted children were trapped in Port-au-Prince amid the rubble of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, they did everything they could to bring the little boy and girl to safety. They worked closely with their congressman. They contacted the State Department. They scoured the Internet. They turned to the media. And finally, they took matters into their own hands.

On Monday morning, Brett Schlenbaker, 37, boarded an airplane to Port-au-Prince, determined to find his 6-year-old son, Djouvensky, and 8-year-old daughter, Dejennika. He carried with him an imprecise map and two backpacks: one filled with clothes, the other with nonperishable foods like jerky and protein bars. He had no definite plans about how he would get to their orphanage; he figured he might have to walk.

“He was so determined,” said Kendra Schlenbaker, 37. “He was just going down there with the attitude that ‘I’m not leaving the country without my kids.’ ”

The Schlenbakers’ persistence paid off: On Wednesday, after more than three years of waiting for their adoptions to be finalized, siblings Djouvensky and Dejennika arrived safely at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with their exhausted, elated dad.

“I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that after three years of disappointments I’m actually going to get to put my hands on them in my own state,” Kendra said shortly before their flight landed. “I don’t have to go to Haiti to hug them. ... I’m just really excited and very emotional that we’re at this point.”

More than 145 orphans in U.S.
The Schlenbakers are among scores of families benefiting from a temporary change in U.S. policy that is making it easier for Haitian orphans being adopted by Americans to enter the United States.

Since last Tuesday’s earthquake, more than 145 Haitian orphans have been safely relocated to the U.S., the State Department has confirmed. That means more than half of the 254 Haitian adoptions officially in the works for American families have been fast-tracked in response to the earthquake.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the change in policy is aimed at helping orphans get the care they need after Haiti’s destructive earthquake.

Of the children who have arrived here, more than 100 were granted humanitarian parole, and 46 were issued immigrant visas because their cases had been ready for visa processing. Despite the chaos in Port-au-Prince, workers at the U.S. Embassy there have been able to track these children down and get them onto airplanes.

Parents, adoption experts and the children themselves are all stunned by the swiftness with which everything has been happening.

“There has absolutely been an unbelievably positive response from the U.S. government,” said Susan Soon-keum Cox, a vice president with Holt International, an Oregon-based agency that has been arranging foreign adoptions since the 1950s. “There’s never been anything like this before.”

The jubilant news keeps coming in, with thrilled and astonished parents weeping in disbelief:

--A flight carrying 54 Haitian orphans landed at Pittsburgh International Airport on Tuesday. Their orphanage had been destroyed in the earthquake. The plan was to get the children medical care and then place them in group homes until their adoptions can be finalized.

Charly Schumacher with his adoptive mom.

--Seven Haitian orphans arrived in Kansas on the same flight on Sunday, bound for three separate homes. Four of the children had been legally adopted by Tim and Alecia O’Byrne of Holton, Kan., 14 months ago, but red tape and lost paperwork kept the children from coming to their American home. “I never would have thought that an earthquake would be what it would take to push this through,” Tim O’Byrne said.

--Jan and Paul Schumacher of Wilmington, Ohio, have been trying to finalize their adoption of their son Charly since 2005, when Charly was 6. On Monday, they learned that Charly, now 11, will be allowed to fly to the United States next week on a medical visa because he was injured in the earthquake and needs medical care. “I’m still pinching myself,” Jan Schumacher said. “I cannot believe it. I’m shocked. Shocked.”

In the Schlenbakers’ case, Kendra had flown to Haiti five times since the couple made the decision to adopt Djouvensky and his sister, Dejennika. Kendra was grateful that she made extra copies of the children’s almost-fully-completed paperwork during her last visit to Haiti. For many parents adopting Haitian children, crucial paperwork was lost or destroyed in the earthquake.

Once he arrived in Port-au-Prince, Brett Schlenbaker caught a ride to his children’s orphanage with missionary workers he happened to meet at the airport in Florida. He got there safely and was reunited with the children almost immediately. They all spent Monday night at the orphanage, and then made their way on Tuesday to the U.S. Embassy, which took them in and approved them for travel to the States. After 12 hours at the embassy, Brett and the children headed to the airport and caught a flight bound for Miami.

The Schlenbakers have two biological children, a 12-year-old son named Austin and an 8-year-old daughter named Karson. When the whole family was reunited at Sea-Tac Airport, Kendra broke down in tears. Austin and Karson rushed into their dad’s arms, then hugged their new brother and sister. Everyone involved seemed astonished.

“I didn’t think it would be that quick,” Brett said.

Still waiting, worrying
For every story with a happy ending, though, another family somewhere in the United States continues to endure a special form of suffering. For more than a week, hundreds of adoptive parents have been living with fear and dread: fear that their Haitian children may have died in the violent earthquake, and dread that if their children had survived, their arduous adoption processes might end up taking eons longer to complete. Wednesday’s magnitude-5.9 aftershock only ratcheted up parents’ worries.

While the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have a record of 254 Haitian adoptions officially in the works, officials with adoption agencies say 600 may be a more accurate number when adoptions in the early stages are taken into account.

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 to spend time with their children and bond with them — so even families in the earliest stages of the adoption process may feel quite attached to their future family members.

Janelle and Bryan Benedict of Torrance, Calif., have been trying for about a year and a half to adopt Lovely, a 2-year-old Haitian girl.

On Wednesday, Janelle Benedict felt numb when she received word about what’s been happening on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

Because some orphanage directors feel that they haven’t been getting adequate attention from the U.S. Embassy about the adopted orphans in their care, Benedict explained, the directors are simply showing up at the Embassy with groups of adopted children in tow.

“All of the [orphanages] are planning the same thing, and there will no doubt be long lines of children in a chaotic and unsafe environment at the embassy,” Benedict wrote in an e-mail message. “We are extremely disappointed at this development, and worry for Lovely’s safety.”

This story contains information from The Associated Press and from writers Mike Celizic and Sylvia Wood.