In the blink of an eye, thousands of children lost their homes, their families, and their way of life when the earth ruptured under their feet in Haiti last week.
Aid groups say tens of thousands of children were orphaned by the cataclysmic 7.0 earthquake — so many that they won't even venture a guess as to the exact number. And with so many buildings flattened in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, many children now are living alone on the streets.
One of them is 13-year-old Jean Peterson Estime, who lost his parents and five sisters when the earthquake flattened his home.
"I'm trying to get a little job so I can take care of myself," he told the Associated Press, trying to look brave as he shuffled his feet in oversized sandals.
What he really wants is someone to take him in -- something Dr. Jane Aronson says is the best road to recovery for these children.
“The most important steps are to rescue orphans who are sleeping in the streets that have no supervision,” Aronson, founder and CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, told FoxNews.com. “We then have a moral obligation to identify family members in the community. We want to protect these children from losing their families. That is the number one priority once the child is safe and provided for....
“What we need to do is bring in community people who know the children if we can’t find the mother, father, aunt, uncle, sibling or grandparent. If you find people in the community, that’s the next step to help these children,” she said.
It’s a form of foster care, she said, and an ideal way to help children who have lost their families in a disaster.
“We saw this in the Tsunami of 2004,” Aronson said. “This is the best way for a child to heal. Family care and permanency – that’s what kids need.”
What Aronson would not like to see is orphans packed into institutionalized settings.
“Putting a million children in camps is not the answer,” she stressed. “This will lead to disease, depression and death. You can’t take care of a million children in these camps. We need to look at the countries surrounding Haiti that can really pick up the slack and provide what these Haitian children need.”
Advocacy groups are trying to help, either by speeding up adoptions or by sending in relief personnel to evacuate thousands of orphans to the U.S. and other countries.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a humanitarian parole policy that allows orphaned Haitian children into the U.S. temporarily on a case-by-case basis, so they can receive the care they need.
Spokesman Sean Smith said orphans who have ties to the U.S., such as a family member already living here, are among those who can get special permission to remain in the country.
More than 50 children, most of whom already have adoptive families waiting for them, arrived Tuesday in Pittsburgh. After receiving initial medical treatment, they were taken to a "comfort center" with food, drink and toys, where they will stay until they are placed with foster families.
Aronson, who has been a practicing adoption medicine specialist for the past 12 years, said it's important to remember that these children are deeply traumatized.
“Just like adults, these children are victims of post traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “They are frightened and oftentimes, developmentally, they are not able to comprehend what happened to them. They are missing their families and familiarity of their family, and right away these children become depressed.”
As a result, Aronson said orphaned children become quiet; they lose their social skills and become distrustful with strangers in their midst.
“Even an infant can become depressed and sad and the child can die from a broken heart,” she said. “This had been well defined and described. We have to make sure the child is secure and has the love, care and support of adults around them. This is just as important as saving the physical body.”
For Americans who want to adopt children orphaned by the earthquake, Aronson was quick to remind them that they have to go through the proper channels.
“This can take a few years in Haiti,” she said. “The child must be found or placed in an orphanage by the family. The legal process starts when the parents clearly write in a legal document that they can’t take care of them. They need to sign this document, which is specific to each country. And then they can be made available for adoption – but those rules must be followed.”
Although it’s too early to determine what kind of psychological impact the earthquake will have on the adoptees, Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a New York City pediatric psychologist, said both the children and adoptive parents face many challenges.
“Oftentimes it depends on the kid,” Hartstein told FoxNews.com. “Usually, the younger they are, the easier it is for them to adapt. But for some of them, everything they knew was shattered in a second so they may have a hard time getting attached to new family or they may become so attached that they don’t ever want to let (their new parents) out of their sight.”
Hartstein suggested allowing the adoptive child to get settled in his or her new home before jumping to conclusions about how the earthquake may have affected them. She said new parents should open the door to questions and discussion of the disaster if the subject is broached, and to seek counseling for children who appear to be really anxious.
“Parents should also receive some coaching on how to approach the subject,” she said. “We didn’t live through it. Some kids may come to the U.S. and settle into their families and be fine. Others may have more anxiety than the typical kid. So it’s very important for parents to learn how to help ease the anxiety, how to talk about it, and most importantly not ignore it.”
Even before last week's earthquake, Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, was awash in orphans, with 380,000 children living in orphanages or group homes, the United Nations Children's Fund said.
Some children lost their parents in previous disasters. Others were abandoned amid the Caribbean nation's long-running political strife, or by parents who were simply too poor to care for them.
The Associated Press and FoxNews.com's Marrecca Fiore contributed to this report.