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Home World Families trying to adopt children encounter dysfunction in Haiti and red tape...

Families trying to adopt children encounter dysfunction in Haiti and red tape in U.S.

When in October 2022 Michelle Reed brought home from Haiti two adopted sons after a grueling five-and-a-half year process, she didn’t know they had a younger brother in the orphanage they just left. 

Determined to keep the siblings together, Reed, who lives in Florida, started the adoption process for Esai, 6. Haiti’s central adoption authority, L’Institut du Bien-Etre Social et de Recherches, or IBESR, approved the request in 2023, stressing the importance of keeping families united. 

In the time since, Reed has been in regular contact with Esai, building a bond through Zoom calls and letters. But it all changed in March, when the political and social crisis in Haiti reached a new high and embroiled the capital, Port-au-Prince, in heavy violence. IBESR’s office was vandalized by gangs and had to temporarily cease operations. 

“We have a video of the attack,” Reed said. “It’s horrible. All the paperwork and files were spread across the street, containing personal information about us and our children,” she said. The destruction of vital documents has severely delayed the adoption process for many, leaving many families in limbo.

On March 22, the U.S. State Department told Reed and other families in the process of adopting from Haiti that it would expedite the evacuation of their children. Weeks later, the State Department seemingly reversed course, stating that families would have to complete the adoption process in Haiti before their children could come to the U.S.

“The State Department wouldn’t tell us why they changed their mind or what got in the way,” Reed said. While some families received passport waivers and humanitarian parole, about 70 families, including Reed’s, were left without any clear resolution.

Emergency humanitarian parole, which allows children to enter the U.S. temporarily until the adoption process is finalized, is a beacon of hope for many families. However, the State Department has not consistently applied this option in recent years, said Nicole Skellenger, an attorney who represents some of the families. 

Earlier this spring, about 30 Haitian children entered the U.S. through humanitarian parole. The process is regulated by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, according to Skellenger of Fox Rothschild, a law firm specializing in adoption immigration. 

Children from the orphanage being airlifted from Port-au-Prince to a safer region in Haiti.
Children from the orphanage being airlifted from Port-au-Prince to a safer region in Haiti.Michelle Reed

In a statement to NBC News, the State Department said it is working to find ways to continue processing cases while complying with U.S. and Haitian laws, Hague Convention obligations, and minimizing risks related to children’s legal status in the U.S. 

Though Reed’s adoption application for the younger boy already has been approved by both the Haitian and U.S. governments, the process cannot be finalized without a decree from the Haitian courts, which are currently closed due to the ongoing violence and political crisis. Reed said Esai’s orphanage has been infiltrated by gangs three times since March, and recently he had to be airlifted to a safer part of Haiti. 

“The orphanage directors have fled, and there’s no stability or safety for my child,” Reed said.

Emmerson Philippe and Michelle Lake from Florida are in the process of adopting Philippe’s niece and nephew from Haiti, but the escalating violence in the country has them pleading for a humanitarian intervention.

Emmerson Philippe and his wife, Michelle Lake
Emmerson Philippe and his wife, Michelle Lake, with their adopted children in Haiti.Courtesy Michelle Lake

“I won’t reveal their names for their safety, but they mean the world to us,” Philippe said. “Haiti is in chaos right now. Gangs are rampant and children are not safe. Since January, 2,500 people have been killed, and over 300,000 have had to relocate. We’ve moved our kids three times to keep them safe.”

Philippe’s mother traveled to Haiti to care for the children, but she fell victim to the violence. “The gangs started shooting near her home and, in the chaos, she had a heart attack and passed away,” he said. “We managed to safeguard the kids, but my mom didn’t make it.”

In Odessa, Texas, Haley and Craig Forman were matched in May 2023 with Thara, then 3. However, the Formans are waiting for an adoption decree from the Haitian judicial system. The couple said that despite meeting all the legal requirements, the bureaucratic stalemate has left Thara in a precarious situation, facing daily risks in Haiti. 

“She has to be alive for us to be able to complete her adoption,” Haley Forman said.

Cherry and Zach Stewart have faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles over the last six years, including the prolonged wait for their Article Five letter, a crucial document in the adoption process, from Haitian adoption officials. The increasing violence and food shortages in Haiti have only added to their anxiety and fears for the safety of the two children they are hoping to adopt and raise in the U.S.

“These are our children,” said Cherry Stewart. “They aren’t faceless kids. They are known and loved, and they need to come home.”

Cherry Stewart and her family sharing early morning phone calls with their adopted Haitian child on Easter morning.
Cherry Stewart and her family sharing early morning phone calls with their adopted Haitian child on Easter morning.Courtesy Cherry Stewart

A number of 25 American families continue to fight for emergency humanitarian parole for their children, urging the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to collaborate and expedite the process. 

“We’re not interested in avoiding any part of the adoption process. We will follow the rules, but we need our kids safe,” Reed said. “We need them to finally have compassion on these children and get them to safety so we can finish the adoption process.”

An adoption decree is the final step before a child can leave the country, but the ongoing chaos in Haiti has disrupted this process. Government offices are often nonoperational due to gang violence, and crucial approvals are nearly impossible to obtain. Even families with all necessary paperwork find themselves stuck. The State Department has deemed it nearly impossible to move forward without these requirements, leaving many children in dangerous situations.

“The U.S. is asking these families to do the impossible,” Skellenger of Fox Rothschild said. “They’re requiring families to take steps that would put them at great risk, like traveling to Port-au-Prince, which is incredibly unsafe right now.”

Adding to the complications, many children have been relocated due to attacks on orphanages, making it even more difficult to access documents like passports, which the Haitian government currently cannot provide.

Skellenger said, however, that the State Department has waived these requirements in the past and could do it again. For example, she said, President Barack Obama signed a law in 2010 to allow some Haitian orphans to bypass the standard visa and passport requirements for a green card, following a devastating earthquake in Haiti that year. 

The U.S. Department of State declined to answer questions about humanitarian parole and referred NBC News to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In a written statement, the Department of State mentioned it is seeking solutions for children who do not yet have an adoption decree and encourages adoption service providers to continue their work in Haiti as conditions allow. NBC News reached out to USCIS, but USCIS said to contact the Department of State.

Currently, many members of Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., organizations like the Academy of Adoption & Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (AAAA), orphanages and a group of parents are urging the government to expedite the process of getting children out of Haiti and reuniting them with their families.

“We need our kids home,” Reed said, “as soon as possible.”

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