From Haiti's horrors, boy finds love and choices in America

Betly, 3, right, plays with Will Johnson, 5, at their home in Reddick on Dec. 8. Susan and Bill Johnson are in the process of trying to adopt Betly from Haiti. Will is a child they have adopted from Guatemala. Betly shares a room with Will and a toy collection heavy on cars and stuffed animals.

Bruce Ackerman/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 10:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 10:43 p.m.

A year ago, Susan and Bill Johnson of Reddick were going through the painstaking process of adopting a child from Haiti. Susan Johnson had just returned from visiting with their adoptive child, Betly.

The two spent a week together at a Port-au-Prince hotel getting to know each other in mid-December 2009. A spontaneous photo of Johnson and Betly together would later serve as proof that the pair had hit it off.

But a month later, on Jan. 12, 2010, the island nation was rocked by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Few buildings escaped damage, including the orphanage housing Betly, who was then 2 years old.

The digital photograph along with documents showing the family already had started the adoption process was enough for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to grant the toddler a humanitarian parole to receive care in the U.S.

Several tense weeks ensued while the family awaited any news from the orphanage about how their son was faring. There were also several attempts to travel to Haiti to be with the boy.

It was mid-February 2010 before Betly, who now goes by Sam, could be evacuated from Haiti and reunited with the Johnsons in Miami.

Finalizing the adoption will take another year or so since Betly needs to have been in the U.S. for two years. His parole will last through February 2012, and the adoption agency will continue to make home visits to check on Betly's welfare during that time.

Prior to the 2010 earthquake, there had never been more than 355 adoptions from Haiti by Americans in any one year. Suddenly, adoption agencies and federal authorities faced triple that caseload and had to scramble in just a few months to get orphans to the U.S. who otherwise would have been processed over the next several years.

It's estimated that 1,500 children were flown to the U.S. following the earthquake and placed with adoptive families.

In early December 2010, Congress approved a bill that will enable the children to become citizens much faster than the normal two-year process. It's unclear how this process will affect the Johnsons.

Betly and his biological siblings were placed in a Haitian orphanage in July 2009. His siblings have also been adopted by an American family.

The past year has included a lot of firsts and discoveries for the boy, who celebrated his third birthday in September. Susan Johnson said it's been like Betly has gone through three years of his life in one year.

“He had his first bath in a bathtub, first time in a bed with sheets, his first haircut, his first dentist appointment, his first movie,” she said. “It was a good three months of settling in for him, but he's done really well.”

He also caught his first fish and saw his first mountain.

It took a while, however, for him to warm up to the family's dogs, Meg and Buddy.

Asked about dogs in Haiti, Betly responds, “dogs are bad ... they eat me all gone.”


Betly, who has a slight Haitian Creole accent, can spell his name and that of his older brother Will, 5, whom the Johnsons adopted from Guatemala. Susan Johnson said it took the toddler about six months to learn English.

“He still gravitates to Creole and French when he hears it,” she said.

She said Betly wants them to read everything to him. “He's a true academic,” she said.

He prefers to be at school around the other children because, Susan Johnson said, it reminds him of his life at the orphanage.

When quizzed about what he likes to eat, Betly quickly lists rice, broccoli, ice pops and bananas. He enjoys eating out, especially at IHOP, where his choice is typically a breakfast entree, no matter the time of day.

Susan Johnson said Betly is not a fan of meat or pizza like Will and he can't be enticed by cookies or other sweets. And despite digestive problems, he's gained four pounds since coming to the U.S. She said doctors still consider him malnourished because of his lack of body fat and the toddler also carries the sickle-cell trait.

Betly shares a room with Will and a toy collection heavy on cars and stuffed animals. Elmo is his favorite.

The boys get along well, and like any brother relationship they have moments where sharing has to be worked out. The pair played soccer on a team this past season and enjoyed it.

The family's 2010 Christmas letter included a photo of Betly's arrival in Miami, along with an updated family portrait taken in the yard of their Marion County home.

For Christmas, Betly and Will got all-terrain pedal cars from their grandfather to race around the family property.

“Sam is on the go from the time he gets up in the morning until he goes to bed at night. He takes about a two-hour nap but he has lots of energy,” Susan Johnson said.

One of the main questions the couple is asked is whether they are done adopting.

“After traveling to see how children live internationally, and seeing first hand those young hopeless eyes, it is very hard not to move forward with another,” she said. “If it is right for us, we may.”

Contact Harriet Daniels at or 867-4125. The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

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