Orphaned Haitian children arrive in Pittsburgh

Tired, poor and huddled, the orphans begin new lives

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Most are woefully thin. Many were sound asleep and wrapped in blankets in the arms of caregivers. Those awake looked worn out.

Then one handsome but thin boy dressed only in a white T-shirt and black basketball shorts left the yellow Port Authority bus, shot a high-octane smile to media members as cameras flashed, then sauntered 40 feet through the brisk cold before ducking into Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville.

Safe at last, that smile seemed to convey. And better days ahead.

Fifty-three orphans -- who survived a major earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12 -- were rescued late Monday by a Pittsburgh team of health officials, volunteers and elected officials, including Gov. Ed Rendell.

Before the rescue, the children found themselves living in an embassy driveway days after the temblor had rendered their orphanage uninhabitable, with roads buckled like waves of the ocean.

Ben Avon sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie have been operating an orphanage with 148 children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. All but 54 of the children had been airlifted out of Haiti to adoptive parents overseas. The earthquake made it difficult to get enough food, water and health-care supplies for the remaining children.

Aboard a donated Republic Airways flight, the children and the rescue team landed yesterday morning in Pittsburgh, where they were transferred to Port Authority buses and escorted by Allegheny County police, with lights blinking and sirens sounding, to Children's Hospital.

Most of the children, between the ages of 11 months and 12 years old, were barefoot when they boarded the plane at the Port-au-Prince Airport. Some were treated for diarrhea and dehydration.

Jamie McMutrie and one child stayed behind and caught a flight yesterday out of Haiti with plans to join the others at Children's Hospital.

At the hospital, the children each underwent triage care in a special area of the hospital's Emergency Department before being released to a comfort room on the third floor of the John G. Rangos Sr. Research Center, where beds, toys, food and entertainment were available.

None of the children required hospitalization.

"I was surprised how well the kids adjusted, because this is a different world for them," said Brian Knavish, spokesman for the American Red Cross. "Coming from a different country and getting on a plane, maybe for the first time, and then the doctors and the bus and the sirens. Of course, some of them were crying. But most of them, even though they don't speak our language, they're smiling, they're joking. They seem to be in great spirits."

The Red Cross volunteers and hospital workers set the children up with sleeping mats, food -- chicken fingers, pizza and baby food -- and diapers.

"They're playing games, coloring books," Mr. Knavish said.

The children also got to visit with their prospective adoptive parents.

Kristin Heaton and her husband, Scott, came from Roca, Neb., to be reunited with Bettania, 7, and Dieunette, 2, the girls they are adopting. At an emotional news conference yesterday evening, she thanked the Pittsburgh-based rescue team for bringing her girls to safety.

"I know that orphans are dying over there from dehydration and malnourishment. And my daughters did not," she said. "I don't know how much longer they could have survived in that situation."

Allegheny County Manager Jim Flynn said the rescue effort was a partnership of people and agencies determined to save the orphans.

"Nobody's even talked about the cost," he said. "This has been a humanitarian mission, where you've got to do what's in the best interests of the children first. And then the money's the money. I don't know where it came from, where it's going to come from, or how much it's ultimately going to cost."

At times, he said, the various groups encountered problems that threatened to derail the effort.

"All the groups encountered a lot of different roadblocks," he said. "Some were regulatory, some were financial. In fact, [Monday] night, we weren't even sure that this was even going to happen.

"But at each hurdle or obstacle, the team and the partnership grew, expanded and reacted, so that everything was overcome and it was a successful journey to date. As Kristin said, the journey's not over. There's still 53 children upstairs that we need to get with their adoptive families."

That, Mr. Flynn said, is the complicated second phase of the mission, in which the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration Services must cut through the normally complicated adoption process to release the children to their new parents. He said eight to 10 workers were processing documents and reviewing paperwork.

The waiting, Ms. Heaton said, is difficult for the children, as well as the parents.

"[Bettania] is upset with us right now, because we don't have her and she can't understand why she's not with us," Ms. Heaton said. "But we'll get her through it."

To expedite the process, the county has set up a makeshift courtroom near the comfort room, complete with a judge, to handle adoption procedures.

Seven undocumented children will be released to the county Office of Children, Youth and Families to be placed with foster parents. Forty children are scheduled to go to American families, with three headed to Canada and four to Spain.

"This is new turf for everybody," said Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services. "It's the first time we've had this kind of massive effort. And they are struggling to deal with this. [The parents] are being very cooperative, but of course it takes a long time to get things done. I know for the adoptive parents, any time is too long. But hopefully these children can attain permanency in the next day or two."

Leslie Merrill McCombs, senior consultant for government relations at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the rescue mission overcame great odds to get the children out of Haiti. With the success of the mission, she said, she's been asked by four other Haitian orphanages to help rescue their children from the earthquake zone.

But throughout the narrative, she recounted one powerful episode that caused her to halt with emotion.

On the plane, she had asked the children, many of whom could understand some English, whether they had yet to meet their new mommies and daddies, and each child seemed happy to relate the details.

"But there was one little boy next to me," she said, "and I asked him if he had met his mommy yet."

"No," he said before looking her straight in the eyes and indicating there was no adoptive mother awaiting him.

"Will you take me home?" he asked.

"I would take all of them if I could," Ms. McCombs said, her voice wavering slightly.

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456. First Published January 20, 2010 5:00 AM


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