– The teen girl who 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 the trip from Haiti to Tampa, Fla., might never happen for 15-year-old Darline.
On the day she was to get the passport that would allow her to come home to her adoptive family, a magnitude-7 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 the clock to get Darline home before her 16th birthday in November, when she will and 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 loved on him, 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 congressmen 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.
State department officials did not immediately comment Friday.
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 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, including a single mother who was supposed to leave this weekend to bring home her HIV-positive daughter.
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.
Adoption advocates who met Thursday in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to discuss the quake's impact on adoptions agreed that efforts should be made to expedite proceedings for the relatively small number of U.S. families whose adoptions were nearly complete.
There almost certainly will be substantial delays in most of the roughly 900 pending adoption applications because of the chaos in Haiti, including widespread loss of essential documents, said Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption.
"Many of the orphanages have probably been damaged, records lost," he said. "It's going to be very difficult to proceed with intercountry adoption in the imminent future."
Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, said his group has set up a Web-based registry through which families can try to get information about the Haitian children they hope to adopt.
But the immediate focus is on the safety of the children and providing emergency relief, he said. Adoption is "part of the plan, but it's not the priority today," DiFilipo said. "The devastation is just phenomenal. We have a lot of work to do before we can move forward with the adoptions."
That leaves parents in the U.S. filled with worry about what comes next.
Kim Lewen, 40, of Willowbrook, Ill., learned by e-mail Wednesday afternoon that two young sisters she is adopting are safe — for now. The single parent-to-be started the adoption process in September and visited 1-year-old Sandina and 3-year-old Benciana in October.
"I need them to be here to be safe. I want them to know they have food and that they are not at risk of disease and they are not terrified," she said. "I can't imagine how terrified they are."