Prospective parents grow more worried about Haiti's orphans

In the market area of Port-au-Prince, there are no goods or supplies to help people rebuild their lives.
In the market area of Port-au-Prince, there are no goods or supplies to help people rebuild their lives. (Carol Guzy/the Washington Post)
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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Adoption agencies and prospective parents across the United States are growing increasingly alarmed about the long-term fate of an estimated 50,000 children who were living in Haitian orphanages when the earthquake hit.

Between 800 and 900 of the children were in the process of being adopted by families in the United States. An additional 1,500 had been matched with European families, mostly in France and the Netherlands.

The remaining children include many who might not technically be orphans but whose families could not afford to care for them, said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, a Washington-based child welfare organization that has taken the lead on negotiating their status with U.S. authorities.

So far, there have been no reports of deaths at orphanages, DiFilipo said. But many of Haiti's orphanages, which include 177 official government-approved facilities and 200 or so ad hoc groups providing care, remain unaccounted for. Those that have sent news often describe dire conditions.

"We're getting e-mails and texts from orphanage directors saying, 'We're out of water, our roads are blocked. We made it to the market, and there was nothing there because there was so much looting,' " DiFilipo said. "I can't put into words how worried I am. 'Extremely' doesn't cut it. It's at a crisis stage."

Although all Haitians in the earthquake zone require assistance, DiFilipo added, children in orphanages are among those with the toughest odds of survival.

"They don't have a next-door neighbor to lend them a hand. They don't have an aunt to bring them into their home or a grandmother to hold their hand and comfort them," he said. "They have a few people in an orphanage, and that's it."

Like many U.S.-based liaisons to Haitian orphanages, Diana Boni has been frantically alerting every humanitarian aid group she can think of to the plight of the orphanage she works with, BRESMA in Port-au-Prince. The nonprofit group cares for 150 children ranging from babies and toddlers to 13-year-olds.

One of the BRESMA's three concrete-block houses completely collapsed. A second was so badly damaged that the children are sleeping on the lawn outside. The third building emerged intact but is now crammed with the children from the first house.

Directing aid workers to the site is a challenge in a neighborhood that was hard to navigate even before the quake.

"I'm giving directions like, 'Go up the hill on Delmas where the Caribbean market used to be and turn left," said Boni, 39, who lives in South Dakota and is Haiti program coordinator for Kentucky Adoption Services, a nonprofit group.

By Friday afternoon, Boni's voice was hoarse from worry and lack of sleep. One of the houses was provided for, but if help doesn't reach the other soon, she said in a tearful whisper, "I'm out of water tonight."

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