Americans rush to adopt orphaned Haitian children

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MIAMI - Tammy Gage cries every time she turns on the TV and sees the devastation in Haiti. And though she already has three daughters, she didn't hesitate when her husband suggested that they adopt from Haiti.

"That's all he needed to say," she said.

Gage and her husband Brad are among many Americans expressing interest in adopting children who have been left orphans from the quake last week. Adoption advocacy groups are reporting dozens of calls a day.

"The agencies are being flooded with phone calls and e-mails," said Tom Difilipo, president and CEO of the advocacy group Joint Council on International Children's Services. "The response is 'Can we help with these children by adopting them?'"

The need is vast. Even before last Tuesday's deadly magnitude-7.0 earthquake, Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries, had 380,000 orphans, according to UNICEF. There is no counting children newly orphaned by the quake, but aid groups estimate the number in tens of thousands.

"Everybody here and in the world wants to do something. I think it's a way that people are opening up their heads and their hearts," said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, which has offered temporary housing for children until they are either placed with extended family, put in foster care or adopted.

This week, 54 orphans arrived in Pittsburgh after a mission that involved officials in the White House, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The orphans were being cared for at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. So far, seven children have been placed with their adoptive families.

"We have received quite a few phone calls, including one from as far away as Alaska," said Clare Kushma, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh. She estimated the number of calls as close to 100, but is referring people to the Allegheny County's Department of Human Services for adoptions.

The road to adoption is a long one. The orphans coming to the U.S. now are children who either had already established a relationship with potential parents in the country, or who were certified as orphans before the quake but hadn't been placed with parents yet, said Chris Bentley, a U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services spokesman.

Before new adoptions can occur, officials need to establish that the children are identified by the Haitian government as orphans; there have been reports of families selling their children to adoption brokers. And potential families need to be cleared, too.

"All this is a 2-year process minimum," Difilipo said. "Some families have waited five years."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, testifying in a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, said her office wants to expedite adoptions of orphans from Haiti. But she said there are some difficulties that come with the adoptions.

In addition to making sure the children are indeed orphans, it must also be determined whether the adoptive parents in the U.S. are qualified to adopt, she said.

The Homeland Security Department, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have created a team to work on the adoptions, Napolitano said.

New solutions may be enacted for these orphans, though, said Mary Robinson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption. Her advocacy group has gotten an offer from Puerto Rico to serve as a resting place for children until they are adopted.

State Department spokesman Darby Holladay said the orphans are one of the highest priorities for the U.S. government.

"We are looking at each and every orphan case individually and we are working around the clock with officials of both Homeland Security and the Haitian government to find solutions," he said.

He said the U.S. Embassy in Haiti has processed immigrant visas for 46 orphan children whose cases were ready for processing. In addition, there have been 100 humanitarian waivers for orphans.

The Department of Homeland Security has also set up an e-mail on Haitian adoptions, haitianadoptions(at)dhs.gov, where people can get queries answered about ongoing adoptions. Bentley also said there will be a task force to help Haitian children come into the U.S. for adoption.

Gage, 38, of Stanberry, Mo., said her oldest daughter texted her the phone number of the National Council for Adoption while on the school bus. The family knows that adoption can take a long time, but plans to stick it out.

"Of course the sooner, the better, but I know kind of the process," she said.

Gage and her husband Brad had discussed adopting before, but she was moved by the devastation in Haiti. "Really, I wanted to get on the next flight out and help these people," she said.

UNICEF will now work to find children who are alone and determine whether they are orphans or have become separated from family, New York-based spokesman Patrick McCormick said. If they have relatives, the agency will work to reunite them. Alternative and longterm choices such as international adoption would be options only after that.

All this requires detective work, but it should be done within two months, he said.

Sheila Noel, 36, of Miami, who is from Haiti, said that she called an advocacy group inquiring how she could adopt her 13-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister, who are now being cared for by a friend. Noel said her mother and stepfather were killed in the quake and two more brothers remain missing.

"Right now the little ones I am really concerned about," she said. She said her siblings were sleeping in parks and she was worried about violence.

"There is no police," she said. "There is nobody you can go to."


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