Six months after a chaotic airlift to the United States, 12 Haitian children remain in a Roman Catholic institution near Pittsburgh, their fate in limbo while U.S. and Haitian authorities struggle to determine which nation should be their future home.
Their case is complicated and politically sensitive, and all parties say they want the best outcome possible for the children. Yet impatience in some quarters is growing.
"It's astounding to me that the bureaucracy can't get this done," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who took part in the airlift. "It's unfair to these children. Let's get them adopted by loving families."
Unlike some 1,100 other children flown out of Haiti to the U.S. after the Jan. 12 earthquake, the youths at the Holy Family Institute in Emsworth, Pa., were not part of the adoption process prior to the quake and — according to some legal experts — shouldn't have been eligible for the emergency program.
There are American families eager to adopt them now, including some who've been screened and approved by adoption agencies. But there's been little in the way of public updates on the case as federal agencies, the Haitian government and the International Red Cross try to determine whether the 12 should be put up for U.S. adoption or returned to relatives in Haiti.
The State Department, which oversees various aspects of international adoption, is deeply involved in case — but has not issued statements about it. Two staffers — authorized by the department to brief a reporter only if they not be identified — described the case as very complex and said there was no timeframe for resolving it as efforts continue to verify information about the children's families in Haiti.
They said no decisions would be made that were not acceptable to the Haitian government, which has been wary of some post-quake efforts to send children abroad. In May, the leader of an Idaho church group was convicted of arranging illegal travel after the group tried to take children out of Haiti without government approval.
The 12 children at Holy Family were part of an airlift of 54 children from the Bresma orphanage in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where two Pittsburgh-area sisters, Jamie and Alison McMutrie, had been volunteering for several years. The sisters' urgent post-quake pleas for help were heeded — participants in the Jan. 19 airlift included Rendell, officials from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and a local Democratic congressman, Rep. Jason Altmire.
Shielded from public view
At Holy Family, the 12 children have been shielded from public view, and from the media, since their arrival, but by all accounts are receiving excellent treatment. They experienced their first snowfall during the winter, made field trips to Pittsburgh's zoo and children's museum, and have enjoyed the swimming pool during recent hot weather.
"The children had typical reactions to being whisked out of their country. ... We had bed-wetting and tantrums," said Sister Linda Yankoski, the institute's president. "We're not seeing that now. ... They appear to be very well-adjusted."
Ranging in age from 15 months to nearly 13, the children have been living together in their own residence, kept apart from the dozens of troubled youths who make up the institute's regular population. The staff has been supplemented with Creole-speaking volunteers.
In hindsight, it's clear that including the 12 children in the airlift has created a long-running dilemma. Yet federal and state officials have defended the decision not to leave them behind in the confusion at the Port-au-Prince airport — saying the alternative would have been to send them back to an understaffed, undersupplied orphanage in a devastated city.
When it became clear that the 12 children were not part of the U.S. adoption process, an adoption service provider affiliated with the Bresma orphanage compiled a list of qualified U.S. families willing to adopt them.
Among them were Chad and Sherry Cluver of Forsyth, Ill., who'd been contemplating adopting from Haiti long before the earthquake. The Cluvers — both high school teachers — flew to Pittsburgh on Jan. 21 to meet briefly with two of the 12 children who, later that day, were moved to the Holy Family Institute.
Since then, according to Sherry Cluver, she and her husband have been prohibited from further visits or any other contact with the children, and the last update they got from any federal official was June 15.
"We're here, praying for you, loving you, and writing and calling important people for help — to bring you home," Cluver wrote in a recent blog entry, addressing the children even though they were unlikely to read it. "We pray that your hearts might somehow know that we have not left you behind."
Among those Cluver has contacted is her congressman, Aaron Shock, R-Ill. His spokesman, Dave Natonski, said Shock plans to write to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius inquiring about the status of the case and the welfare of the 12 children.
Rendell, in a telephone interview, said he already has contacted Sebelius.
"I'm enormously frustrated," he said. "This diplomatic problem has to be worked out."
HHS is the parent agency for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the children while they are in the U.S. but not up for adoption.
Even while praising the Holy Family Institute for its care of the children, some adoption experts are now insisting it's time they should be released for adoption.
"What's in the best interest of these kids — to stay in an institution or get them into a family?" asked Tom DeFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, which represents many U.S. adoption agencies.
DeFilipo says parents or other relatives of all 12 children have gone on record as relinquishing legal custody of them and endorsing their adoption by U.S. families.
'Six months is long enough'
"Six months is long enough," DeFilipo said. "But no one is rallying around this. These kids aren't in anybody's constituency. They've not got adoptive families. They're not citizens. Nobody wants to talk about this."
The State Department is aware of claims that the children's relatives have relinquished them, but wants to verify any such actions and be sure the relatives understand the ramifications of any statements they've made. The department said the children's cases would be decided individually — so there might not be a common outcome for all 12.
Yankoski urges those concerned about the children to be patient, and suggests they are far better off at Holy Family — with nutritious meals, schooling and counseling — than if they'd stayed in Haiti.
"Everyone is trying to make the right decision for these children," Yankoski said. "Until they do that, our job is to care for them as best we can and prepare them for the next step in their lives."