Reporting from Los Angeles and Atlanta — A harrowing effort to evacuate dozens of Haitian orphans to the United States started with some unexpectedly good news in those first terrible hours after the massive earthquake.
- After days of trauma, sleeplessness and anxious plans, father and son Kevin and Benicio Downes rest for a few moments in the Miami airport. Layne Downes, xx
Somehow God's Littlest Angels orphanage in the mountains above Port-au-Prince had survived the destructive shaking intact and all 150 of its charges were safe.
Over the next 10 days, U.S. families who were already in the process of adopting 83 of the children organized a frantic effort to bring them to Miami, reaching out to politicians, humanitarian aid workers and the news media.
On Friday, a jetliner delivered the U.S.-bound orphans to the city's international airport, uniting the children, ranging from newborns to 6-year-olds, with their adoptive families.
"I'm excited and overjoyed," said Christopher Morrow, who was watching Benicio, 21 months, until his adoptive mother's plane landed. "He leaked all over me when I changed his diaper! It's been a good day."
The so-called Haiti 80 have been issued temporary visas that will allow them to stay in the United States as their new families work out the final details of their adoptions.
They are among a number of unions of adopting U.S. families and Haitian orphans this week helped by a new policy of the State Department and Department of Homeland Security that permits expedited entry for children already in the adoption pipeline.
Several hundred Americans were in various stages of adopting Haitian children when the earthquake struck, said Michele T. Bond, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services.
Many of them are "frantic with worry about the children's welfare and they want to know how to expedite adoption so the children can be brought safely home to the United States," Bond said.
Megan Mattson, a State Department spokeswoman, said a special temporary visa, called a "humanitarian parole," already had been granted to 400 children, who had either made their way or would soon come to the United States. In comparison, 330 children were adopted from Haiti in fiscal 2009.
"Given the circumstances, that's quite an impressive number," Mattson said.
David Hubner, 36, and wife Christie, 34, traveled to Miami from their home in Frederick, Md., ready to meet their daughter Friday for the first time.
Ila, a 3-year-old, had been promised to them three years ago. If it wasn't for the earthquake in Haiti, David Hubner figured, they might have had to wait three more years.
On Wednesday, the Hubners received even more good news in the form of a call from their agency, One World Adoption Services: They would pick up Ila in Florida.
"As a Christian, I really believe the Lord did not cause this," David Hubner said, speaking of the earthquake. "But blessings really do come out of tragedies."
Other countries have chartered planes to airlift children out of Haiti. More than 100 young children were sent to the Netherlands this week, about 37 of them from the God's Littlest Angels orphanage.
Offers to adopt children whose parents were killed in the quake have been pouring in from around the globe, international adoption agencies report. But for now, new applications have been put on hold, they say.
The crisis has prompted the U.S. and Haitian governments to work on streamlining the adoption process.
But Mattson said that work remains in progress, and she could not provide details of what a streamlined system would look like.
Some of those awaiting adoption will face new headaches: Essential paperwork has been lost in the quake and courts have been destroyed. In addition, families are separated, and in some cases it is difficult to ascertain whether missing parents are dead. These factors will complicate matters when hundreds, maybe thousands, of children are identified as earthquake orphans.
In comments about the unfolding disaster this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that the United States will take a cautious approach.
"We will not let red tape stand in the way of helping those in need, but we will ensure that international adoption procedures to protect children and families are followed," Clinton said Wednesday at a news briefing in Washington.
After the earthquake struck, Kevin and Catherine Downes were frantic about Benicio, the 21-month-old Haitian boy they were close to adopting.
From their home in Visalia, Calif., they used the Internet and telephone lines to begin a campaign to bring the boy and other Haitian adoptees to U.S. soil as soon as possible, Kevin Downes said.
By Wednesday, Catherine Downes had been notified by phone that temporary visas had been granted to the orphans and that the children would be arriving early Friday in Miami.
She and her husband, both 38 and Christian filmmakers, have been trying to adopt a Haitian child for three years, she said. During the process, she got pregnant with their first biological child, Nathaniel, now 9 months old.
After her plane was diverted twice because of bad weather, Catherine Downes finally set eyes on Benicio on Friday afternoon.
Exhausted, she felt "overwhelming relief," she said.
"He was in my husband's arms and sound asleep," she said from Miami.
"This little boy that we got pictures of every month is now in my arms forever."