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As Haiti adoptions resume, US families brace for uncertainty and delays

Officially, Haiti's international adoption process is back in business.

Yet U.S. adoption agencies remain wary and uncertain, while families may face years of limbo as they seek to adopt children orphaned by the January earthquake. Some had been to Haiti and met children before the quake, others eagerly started from scratch afterward.

"It's difficult to stay patient, but we know that's the only way we're going to get this done," said Jan Schumer of Mansfield, Ohio, who along with her husband, James, an eye doctor, began an adoption application soon after the Jan. 12 disaster.

They're both in their 40s, and their 7-year-old son is clamoring for a younger brother.

"When the quake hit, we erroneously assumed the process would be expedited," Jan Schumer said. "Now we're being told it could take two years."

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Haiti shut down its adoption system, while allowing more than 1,000 children whose adoptions were pending to be airlifted to the U.S. under a special program.

That program has ended, and those families face challenges of their own — acclimating the children to America while still facing red tape in getting them U.S. citizenship.

Meanwhile, Haiti's adoption authority is now accepting new applications for children who were either documented as orphans before the quake or who have been formally relinquished by their birth parents since Jan. 12.

However, the major U.S. adoption agencies that operate in Haiti are not rushing back with a flood of applications. Instead, they're counseling the large numbers of interested families to expect delays and frustrations as Haitian officials slowly try to figure out which seemingly parentless children should be available for adoption.

"I'm telling people to use caution, investigate who you're going to work with, go in with your eyes open and be realistic," said Dixie Bickel, co-founder of a Colorado-based ministry called God's Littlest Angels that runs an orphanage in Haiti and arranges adoptions by U.S. families.

For now, Bickel isn't accepting new applications — though she may start next month. She worries that Haitian authorities — and some international aid officials — may be moving too slowly to register abandoned children and determine if they have relatives who might care for them.

"It scares me to death that as soon as I open up my adoptions, I'm going to have 1,000 applications, and I only have 20 orphans available," Bickel said.

The U.S. State Department, which oversees international adoptions by Americans, has expressed support for the Haiti adoption authority's pledge to strengthen its child-protection system. The efforts may be slow-starting, U.S. officials say, because of damage and personnel losses resulting from the quake.

Among the couples bracing for likely delays are Debbie and John Chapman of Johnstown, W.Va., who are trying to adopt a brother and sister they met several years ago through their volunteer work supporting an orphanage in northern Haiti.

The Chapmans started the adoption process last summer, with support from the pastor who runs the Fort Liberte orphanage, but they now fear the quake may delay the process, prompting searches for other relatives of the two teenagers even though their parents died years ago.

"I'm sure they do have extended family in Haiti, but nobody's stepped up to raise them in the past five years," Debbie Chapman said. "We've gotten to know these kids and love them. I've got their rooms all ready for them — it helps keep my mind off how long it's going to take."

The Chapmans are clients of Kentucky Adoption Services in Owensboro, Ky., which is working with several other families hoping to adopt from Haiti. It's a process than can cost $25,000.

"We're warning them that it's not going to be an easy road," said the agency's executive director, Lucy Armistead, who has distributed a detailed memo outlining the risks.

The memo notes that a major revision of Haiti's adoption law — easing some restrictions on who can adopt — was under consideration in Parliament when the quake hit.

"We have no way of knowing what steps may change," the memo says. "It is also possible that a new law may be passed that restricts adoptions altogether."

As much as she'd like to see more Haitian orphans placed in American homes, Armistead supports exhaustive steps to be sure adoption is the proper recourse — even for children whose parents formally abandoned them.

Those steps seem particularly crucial in light of the post-quake arrests of an Idaho church group for trying to take children they falsely claimed were parentless out of Haiti without government approval. The group's leader is on trial, charged with arranging illegal travel.

"It's important to go back to find the biological parents who relinquished a child and determine if they're still sure about it," Armistead said. "They could have lost other children in the quake and want to get the relinquished one back, or maybe an aid organization has provided them a house they didn't have before."

For roughly 1,000 U.S. families — those who took in Haitian children through the special post-quake program for pending adoptions — there are still bureaucratic hurdles to surmount in formalizing the adoptions and getting U.S. citizenship for the children.

But for Brandon and Ambur Horne of South Bend, Ind., those hurdles may seem minor compared to the stresses encountered when their two new children — 2-year-old Steevenson and his 9-month-old sister, Roselaure — were flown to Miami 10 days after the quake.

Roselaure had just come down with a case of H-flu meningitis and needed a month of intensive medical care in a Miami hospital before coming to South Bend.

Without the quake, and the ensuing airlift, "there's no way she would have gotten proper medical care," said Brandon Horne. "That would probably would have been a death sentence for her."

"Now she's developing normally," he said. "She wants to do whatever her brother does."

The agency handling the Hornes' adoptions, Bethany Christian Services, helped several dozen other families take in Haitian children after the quake, but is being cautious about initiating new applications.

"We've had probably 10 times the number of inquiries we'd get in a year," said the agency's international services coordinator, Kim Batts. "We're allowing families to complete home studies but making them aware of the risks. They really have to be ready for some unknowns."

Bethany Christian Services belongs to the Joint Council on International Children's Services, which has issued a report warning of possible adoption scams in Haiti and advising interested families to "proceed with caution."

The council's president, Tom DeFilipo, estimated that more than 4,000 U.S. families have taken initial steps to adopt from Haiti — which he says is way more than enough to meet demand for the foreseeable future.

"We tell families, 'Put yourself on a waiting list,'" DeFilipo said. "In the years to come, we're going to need families. But don't expect too many agencies to be actively taking new applications at this time."

The National Council for Adoption is concerned that eager American families might overload the adoption bureaucracy.

"It will be a very helter-skelter, somewhat arbitrary process," said the council's acting CEO, Chuck Johnson. "Our concern is there will be a rush of applications, and the system is not prepared for that."

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Online:

Joint Council report: http://bit.ly/aUInup