The teen girl whom Rebecca Williams was set to adopt already had the dress she planned to wear on what she calls her "voyage" home to the United States. But now Williams fears the trip from Haiti to Tampa might never happen for 15-year-old Darline.
On the day Darline was to get the passport that would allow her to come home to her adoptive family, the earthquake ravaged her home country. Now Darline's adoption is in limbo, along with those of hundreds of other orphans being adopted by U.S. families.
Williams knows her daughter is safe for now. But she and her husband are racing against the clock to get Darline home before her 16th birthday in November, when she will no longer be eligible for adoption because she will be considered too old.
"We are the only parents she's known since she was 11 years old," Williams said Friday. "She already should be in her dress to get on the plane."
Tuesday's earthquake has thrown U.S. adoptive families into a state of chaos. Many are finding themselves mired in a desperate search for answers about how their children are faring. Some fear paperwork — which can take months or years to finalize — may be buried or lost forever in crumpled buildings, stalling the adoption process for good.
"When you've held your child in your arms … and then something like this happens where you can't get to them — it's the most helpless feeling in the world," said Kim Wise of Indianapolis. She and her husband, Warren, have been trying to adopt a Haitian boy named Mika for two years, a saga marred by food riots, four hurricanes and now the earthquake. Mika turned 4 the day of the earthquake.
Many families have enlisted the help of immigration attorneys, adoption advocates and members of Congress in efforts to get their children home on emergency visas; others have contacted the State Department with pleas for help, saying they fear orphanages will need to serve the thousands of children who may have been left homeless or without parents after the quake.
A statement posted on the State Department's Web site Friday afternoon said the department was working with other agencies to identify options for expediting pending cases. Those could include offering humanitarian parole for cases in which the Haitian government has already issued a final adoption decree or granted custody to U.S. adoptive parents.
Staffers from more than 30 congressional offices who met Friday with the State Department and other agencies involved in foreign adoptions said the department made clear the plight of adoptive families was a priority, especially in cases where adoptions were nearly complete.
"At this point, no option's been taken off the table," said Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
Adoptions from Haiti make up a fraction of international adoptions to the United States each year, but the number has been growing steadily as countries such as China and Guatemala have slowed or been closed to international adoption in recent years. The U.S. State Department issued 330 immigrant visas to Haitian children last year, up from 96 in 1999.
In the eyes of the Haitian government, many of those waiting to bring children home are already legal parents. Adoptions are finalized in Haiti, but it can still take months for final approval to bring the children home to the United States.
Even those who haven't completed the Haitian adoption process may have already met the children they hope to call their own. Unlike other countries, Haiti matches prospective parents and orphans early in the adoption process, so families have photographs for months, said Heather Breems, Haiti coordinator and international supervisor for Adoption-Link in Oak Park, Ill.
"It's what makes a situation like this so difficult for families, because they've been matched with children already," said Breems, whose agency has five families matched or waiting to travel.
Jill and Bruce Lear of Watertown, S.D., have visited their 9-year-old Haitian children, Pierre and Ange-Laurette, twice and have already decorated the children's bedrooms.
"I have this bed sitting there with a doll and a teddy bear and little pink daisies, and she is in an orphanage with 150 kids without water tonight," Jill Lear said.