Agencies Overwhelmed by Efforts to Aid Haiti's Orphans
January 22, 2010
January 22, 2010
(RNS) -- Alicia Swaringen of Eugene, Ore., received heart-swelling news the morning after last week's deadly earthquake in Haiti: Sthainder, the 4-year-old boy she planned to adopt, was safe. And then it hit her.
The adoption paperwork, amassed over three painstaking years, was in Haiti's Ministry of Interior, now rubble and dust. What, she wondered, would become of the affectionate boy she yearns to bring to Oregon?
By Tuesday (Jan. 19), Swaringen's fears subsided with news of plans to speed up as many as 900 U.S. adoptions that were already in progress before the quake -- and to ease the way for more.
Even before the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti was awash in orphans, about 380,000 according to the U.N. Children's Fund. Many had lost parents to hurricanes, floods, disease or poverty. They lived in about 200 legitimate orphanages or group homes. Other children, however, were sold through bogus orphanages.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced a "humanitarian parole" policy to expedite legitimate adoptions already under way. Plus, orphans with U.S. ties, such as family living here, will get special permission to stay.
A flight carrying 53 Haitian children landed Tuesday in Pittsburgh. In Miami, the Catholic Church proposed a plan similar to 1960's Operation Pedro Pan, which brought 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. The Haitian version, Pierre Pan, involves placing thousands of children in group homes before pairing them with foster parents.
However, in the flurry to help tens of thousands of children that aid groups say may have been orphaned by the quake, agencies such as Eugene-based Holt International Children's Services are proceeding cautiously. "It's incredibly important in times like this to take every precaution that an ethical, professional, compassionate process takes place," said Susan Soon-Keum Cox, Holt's vice president. "There may be children that appear to be orphans, but we need to make sure there are no other family member or neighbors willing and happy to take that child into their family. We can't rush in and assume that they'd be better off somewhere else."
Holt, a nonprofit Christian organization, works in 14 countries to find children safe, permanent, loving homes. It has operated in Haiti for about a decade and had 21 adoptions in progress there when the earthquake struck. Employees at Holt learned by text message that the 30 children and their caregivers in Holt's compound about 40 miles from Port-au-Prince were safe. Cox said they expect the orphanage will serve as a refuge for many more displaced children in the months ahead. She and colleagues are working frantically to arrange for supplies and help.
Calls have spilled into Holt in recent days from those interested in adoption -- a trend, Cox said, that "demonstrates a real compassion. But we have to remember: Adoption is a very complex, complicated procedure ... It needs to be preserved for times when a child has no other possibility to have a family."
Swaringen met the child she hopes to adopt last May at Holt's facility in Haiti. Sthainder (pronounced Sten-dare) was 3, yet seemed sure the tall, blond woman was trustworthy.
"We walked up to each other," Swaringen said. "I sat on the ground. He leaned over, gave me a little kiss on the cheek and put his arms around me. It was so incredibly precious. He sat in my lap and hugged me for an hour ... We bonded immediately." Swaringen, 48, single and a massage therapist, has wanted to be a mother for most of her life. "Things didn't work out that way," she said. "So adoption was an obvious solution."
Three years after she started the process, Swaringen had planned her next trip to Haiti for February, when she expected to sign paperwork to finalize the adoption. She figured on bringing her young boy home in five or six months. Now, she said, "he may be here next week or next month. I just feel really blessed that there is this little boy there for me, and I'm here for him."
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