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Jamie Dean

Homecoming

Cover story sidebar | For Haitians orphaned before the quake, it means leaving home and starting over

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

Debbie and Brian Lepps' new adoptive son, Jimmy, was supposed to come home to Colville, Wash., in three weeks when the Lepps heard news of the earthquake in Haiti. First they didn't know the extent of the damage. When they did, said Debbie Lepp, "It was just panic, fear."

A day after the earthquake they heard that Jimmy and the other 150 children from BRESMA orphanage were safe. Only three women and a few nannies cared for the children, and the Lepps' only information came third-hand or from hurried messages the women sent when they could borrow a BlackBerry-messages like, "We're not safe. Things are not good." They needed food and water, but having it would attract looters and thieves.

"We knew that they had to get out," Lepp said. "There was no way they were going to stay alive if they stayed there."

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The Lepps had waited almost three years for Jimmy after seeing his picture pop up on the website of the orphanage before they went there for a mission trip: "We really did know that the Lord was in control, and we felt that He would not have brought us through all of this if it were going to end up with Jimmy being dead."

About 350 U.S. families shared the Lepps' initial fear as they waited for news of their Haitian adoptive children. The United States has granted humanitarian parole to orphans who have adoptive families for them, but the picture is one of confusion-with adoption records buried in fallen government buildings, hazy guidelines, and a governmental response that feels too slow to anxious parents.

According to regular updates from For His Glory Outreach, the children and staff of Maison des Enfants de Dieu were stranded in a crumbling orphanage, prey to looters, running out of food and water, and with the body of a deceased nanny they could not remove. Because staff heard that the State Department had denied requests for security and transportation, 114 children seeking humanitarian parole began the 1.2 mile trek to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, traveling in a bus across roads littered with dead bodies and debris. At the embassy staff worked for days to collect the required information for each orphan.

Greg and Melissa Nowlin were waiting for their two children, Swolbee, 12, and Marla, 9, from Maison des Enfants de Dieu. Greg Nowlin said progress was bumpy: "Two steps forward, three steps to the left, four steps to the right, one step back. . . . 'We're going to do this now.' 'No, we're not.' 'This is already cancelled.' . . . It gave us an incredible reason to trust and to pray."

On Jan. 23 they learned that Swolbee had humanitarian parole and a visa. Then they heard that Marla's paperwork hadn't been processed, then that she might be on another plane, then that flights were canceled before they finally got a text message: "Marla is here too!!!"

For adoptive parents, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is requiring a long list of adoption documents, including adoption decrees, secondary evidence of adoption decrees, custody grants, proof that they traveled to Haiti to visit the child, pictures of them with their child, an acceptance of referral letter, approval from a Haitian bureau called IBESR, legal relinquishment to the Haitian orphanage, and email correspondence. Happily, the government is allowing copies instead of originals, many of which are buried in collapsed government buildings. The Lepps were missing one vital document-their adoption decree-which turned up in the one stack of files the director was able to salvage.

Sharla Megilligan, executive director of Makarios International, is trying to adopt 4-year-old twin boys. She sent seven documents to DHS on Jan. 19 and heard back a week later: "The most frustrating thing is being told that they wanted to get the kids out immediately, and then not hearing anything."

The boys' birth mother abandoned one twin, Isaak, at the hospital after birth, where the staff ignored him because no one was paying his bills. By the time a group of U.S. doctors discovered him two months later, he was so weak he couldn't cry, he weighed only two pounds after losing half his weight, and he had a diaper rash eating through his skin. The doctors paid for his care, including antibiotics that eventually made him deaf, and Makarios International took him in as a foster child. After two months, the boys' dad showed up with the second twin, Jakob.

Megilligan had some reservations about adoption since she was single, but "God was on my case," she said. In 2007 she began adoption proceedings, eventually moving from the United States to care for the twins full-time. Now she needs to get back to the United States to run Makarios International and obtain surgery for Isaak: "I've been frustrated with the idea of this dragging on and trying to be patient and wait on God's timing."

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