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."
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."
The good news is that the earthquake has drawn attention to the plight of Haitian orphans, said Marc Andreas, vice president of marketing and communications at Bethany Christian Services (BCS) and adoptive parent to two Haitian children. BCS has seen an unprecedented increase in adoption interest, receiving 1,500 emails and sending out more than 1,000 adoption packets to inquiring families. The agency is encouraging people to adopt children who are already waiting for families, since the Haitian government still has to make sure recently orphaned children are actually orphaned and have no family who can take them in. Andreas hopes the upheaval will lead Haiti to revamp its adoption rules and streamline the process.
But for now, the Haitian government has just changed its exit requirements, meaning that all children must receive Haitian approval before they may leave. On Jan. 25, Megilligan received an email saying she needs to be fingerprinted at an INS office and then she can bring her boys home; but she's not sure how the new regulation will affect her. Twenty-seven of Swolbee and Marla's fellow orphans are stranded in Haiti, waiting for the Haitian government to define more clearly the new exit process.
Meanwhile, Swolbee and Marla, along with 79 children from Maison des Enfants de Dieu, arrived in the United States Jan. 24. They rode bikes for the first time down the streets of Colorado Springs and celebrated Swolbee's 12th birthday on Jan. 26. Jimmy, who sang a praise song for reporters at a press conference soon after he arrived, is finally home in Washington-dancing to an iPod in the living room of his new home.
'Still in shock' | Haiti is hit by a massive earthquake followed by aftershocks, with an epicenter near the capital, Port-au-Prince | Mindy Belz and Jamie Dean | Jan. 12, 2010
Helping Haiti | WORLD provides a list of relief organizations accepting donations to assist earthquake victims in Haiti | The Editors | Jan. 13, 2010
Search and rescue | U.S. disaster experts, the U.S. military, and private relief groups head to earthquake-devastated Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 13, 2010
In the dark | Haitian-Americans hope to contact loved ones and quickly send aid back home to family and friends | Alisa Harris | Jan. 13, 2010
Weeping and waiting | Haitian earthquake victims await help, but obstacles slow relief efforts | Jamie Dean | Jan. 14, 2010
Desperation | Too many Haitians are in a holding pattern awaiting aid, as relief organizations try to make progress | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Long night | With tens of thousands of casualties, Haitians weep and wait for morning | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Deliverance | A group of orphans arrive safely in Pittsburgh while relief organizations report progress in Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 19, 2010
Crying for help | Hard-pressed Haitians seek assistance as aid groups face logistical challenges | Jamie Dean | Jan. 21, 2010
Leaving Port | Beyond the capital city are rural communities equally devastated by the quake and in need of help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
The new normal | As life and death continue their morbid mingling, relief groups forge ahead to help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
Finding home | Now that search-and-rescue efforts have been called off, attention turns to providing shelter for survivors | Jamie Dean | Jan. 23, 2010
Chaotic aid | Relief groups attempt to help Haitians despite murky rules, government interference, and the lack of a cohesive plan | Jamie Dean | Jan. 28, 2010
Aftershock | Caregivers predict a second wave of death, as Haitians find moments of deliverance amid days of devastation from one of the modern world's worst natural disasters | Jamie Dean | Jan. 29, 2010
Crisis giving | Instant need calls for long-term strategy | Rusty Leonard | Jan. 29, 2010
An indecent grief | First lamentations, then comfort that strengthens more than soothes | Mindy Belz | Jan. 29, 2010
Hope for Haiti? (audio file) | Hear WORLD news editor Jamie Dean discuss her visit to the earthquake-ravaged country | Nick Eicher | Feb. 1, 2010
Despair and salvation | While the UN grapples with unruly crowds, The Salvation Army peacefully distributes food | Jamie Dean | Feb. 2, 2010
Crossing lines | Failing to heed sound advice, 10 Americans now find themselves facing kidnapping charges in Haiti | Jamie Dean | Feb. 4, 2010
Haiti's plight (audio file) | A discussion of the country's days of devastation and moments of deliverance | Jamie Dean | Feb. 5, 2010
Stress management | Helping Haitians recover takes zeal-with wisdom | Jamie Dean | Feb. 12, 2010
Taking charge | In quake aftermath, build new cities, says Haitian ambassador (and Bible translator) Raymond Joseph | Mindy Belz | Feb. 12, 2010
Houses of God | Grand-Goave, Haiti | The Editors | Feb. 12, 2010
Living water | Water Missions International offers long-term solutions for clean, drinkable water | Angela Lu | Feb. 13, 2010
Building blocks | While Christian Aid Ministries provides for the immediate needs of quake victims, it looks ahead to helping the country rebuild | Angela Lu | Feb. 16, 2010
Close quarters | ActionAid helps homeless Haitians deal with sanitation and security issues at camps set up in Port-au-Prince | Angela Lu | Feb. 23, 2010
Hardest hit | With nearly half a million orphaned children before the quake, Haiti's challenge to parent them just got bigger | Jamie Dean | Feb. 26, 2010
The search for miracles | Port-au-Prince is a city desperately seeking turnaround-and that's before the earthquake | Jamie Dean | March 12, 2010
Hope in the darkness | World Hope International offers Haitians practical assistance and spiritual guidance | Angela Lu | March 24, 2010
Night crawlers | A new disaster threatens defenseless women and children in Haitian tent cities: rape | Jamie Dean | March 25, 2010
Homecoming | Missionary Patrick Lataillade, who nearly died in the quake, returned to help Haitians this week | Angela Lu | March 27, 2010
Hashing out Haiti | As the UN makes recovery plans, Haitians struggle for the basic necessities for survival | Jamie Dean | March 31, 2010