Couple's Haitian adoption in limbo
They don't know when they might be able to see 2-year-old Betly.
Published: Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 at 10:18 p.m.
Delayed but undeterred is perhaps the best way to describe Susan and Bill Johnson in their quest to adopt a 2-year-old Haitian boy named Betly.
The Johnsons, who live in northern Marion County and work at Shands at the University of Florida, were in the initial stages of the adoption when the 7.0 earthquake hit the island nation on Jan. 12.
The orphanage caring for Betly - Ruuska Village, which is operated by Reach Out to Haiti in Port-au-Prince - was destroyed like many of the other buildings in the city. The children, most of whom are under the age of 5, have been sleeping outdoors.
"There is this little boy over there, and he is mine, and I can't get to him to help him." Susan Johnson said of Betly, whose framed photograph hangs on the wall of the Johnsons' home along with other family portraits.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State authorized a humanitarian parole policy that will allow orphaned children from Haiti to enter the U.S. temporarily to receive care.
The children either must be in the final stages of being adopted by American parents or have been identified by an adoption agency and matched with adoptive parents prior to Jan. 12.
Betly and the Johnsons fall into the second category, and how long the process will take is uncertain. The Johnsons are in limbo for the moment because they were only two months into their adoption process and were awaiting paperwork to be completed by the Haitian government.
Jackie Semar, director of the International Child Foundation Inc. & ABC Child Adoption Services based in Arizona, said the phone has been ringing around the clock since the earthquake with calls from parents seeking information on their children's pending adoptions and others wanting to adopt Haitian children.
Additionally, calls are coming in from people around the globe wanting to help.
Semar said orphanages in Haiti are operating on a triage level with all hands on deck working to take care of the children amid the ruins. She said that while the facilities have copies of much of the U.S.-generated documents, it will be hard to replace paperwork from the Haitian government.
"Coping with all of this is just a massive problem for Haiti," Semar said. "It's a huge task given the conditions there."
Updates on the orphanage's Web site report that the past few days have been difficult as staff work out the logistics to acquire food and water for the children and supplies for repairs. They also are transporting adoption files to the U.S. Embassy for processing.
The Haitian government cleared a dozen or so children in the first category from the orphanage to be escorted to Florida by orphanage director Barbara Walker.
Walker is working with a private airline to transport the children to Fort Pierce. Susan Johnson said an e-mail from Walker said they will have short notice informing them that Betly has received his visa or is cleared for humanitarian parole.
"I can anticipate that we will be picking him up at Fort Pierce. We just don't know how long it may be," Susan Johnson said. "That's what is so hard."
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports there were an estimated 380,000 orphaned children in Haiti prior to the earthquake.
The worry now for the Johnsons is that Haiti's new orphans will be moved up in priority and that their son will remain stuck in limbo.
"UNICEF and the others don't need to be caring for my son," Susan Johnson said. "I'm ready to come and get him and bring him home."
Sporadic bits of information relaying that Betly and the other children are safe arrive via the Internet. And while it's somewhat comforting news, Susan Johnson said she wants to see him for herself.
"I need to get there and see him with my own eyes, put my hands on him, hold him and make sure he's OK," she said. "He's my son."
Susan Johnson initially booked a flight into the Haitian capital for this past Thursday, but the flight was canceled after the airport was closed to commercial traffic. A second flight scheduled for Monday also was canceled late last week. The Johnsons now are hopeful a Feb. 4 flight planned before the earthquake will remain on schedule.
The Johnsons and their 4-year old son, Will, who was adopted in 2004 from Guatemala, plan a four-day visit with Betly, though they're not sure now where in Haiti the visit will take place. They intend to name him Samuel Betly Johnson but already call him "Sam."
Susan Johnson flew to Haiti in December to meet Betly for the first time. She was able to spend about a week there getting to know him. The two spent the days playing at the hotel. Betly was frightened of the hotel pool and overhead shower in the bathroom, she said.
"He has the biggest set of brown eyes, and he's very smart," she said. "He loves to laugh and likes to be hugged. And he mimicked what I said in English."
The toddler, Susan Johnson said, is a big eater and particularly enjoys rice and beans. He is potty-trained and can brush his teeth.
He has tested positive for the sickle-cell trait. Of greatest concern to the Johnsons, especially now that the country is in ruins, is getting medical attention for Betly's distended belly, which is believed to be herniated.
The Johnsons learned that Betly and two older siblings were taken by their mother to the orphanage in July 2009. Susan Johnson said it's clear his mother cared for him.
"It's unclear why she took the children to the orphanage, whether or not she could no longer care for them. I have hopes of meeting (the birth mother) when I go back and want to make sure Betly always remembers her," Susan Johnson said. The Johnsons, however, don't know the birth mother's fate following the earthquake.
While they are waiting, the Johnsons sent a shipment of supplies to the orphanage last week along with food and water to help in the relief effort. They are hopeful they can gather donations of more goods to ship next week and cash to wire to the orphanage.
Susan Johnson invites anyone wanting to help to contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once in Haiti, she plans to help in the cleanup and rebuilding efforts at the orphanage "or anything else they may need me to do."
Bill Johnson has seen Betly only through photographs and video clips his wife captured while in Haiti. He too is anxious to make sure the toddler is OK and safe in their Flemington home.
"All the information we are receiving is secondhand, but we want to see for ourselves," he said. "It will be nice when we are all together as a family."
The Johnsons have contacted U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, e-mailing his staff the adoption documents to see if there is any help they can provide.
Stearns said his staff should be able to help the Johnsons navigate the system and also pointed them to several additional resources.
Semar said the normal Haitian adoption process takes about 18 months, at best.
"It sounds like (Haitian) President (Rene) Preval is looking to expedite the adoption process on the Haitian side," Semar said.
The possibility is a glimmer of hope for the Johnsons, who hope it means Betly will arrive "home" in the U.S. much sooner.
Contact Harriet Daniels at email@example.com or 338-3166.
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