Overcoming what they've seen is biggest hurdle for adopted Haitian children

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The big difference will be overcoming the trauma of seeing their whole world collapse on itself.

That's what adoption experts said about the challenges to be faced by 53 orphans airlifted out of Haiti yesterday in the aftermath of the worst earthquake in its history.

The children range from a few months to 12 years old. Most had been matched with adoptive families before the disaster struck and will be joining their new households soon, if they haven't already. Another seven have been confirmed by the Haitian government as eligible for adoption, but have not yet begun the placement process. They are temporarily in the custody of Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families.

In general, experts said, adopted children have similar issues of separation, loss, attachment and adjustment. Inter-country adoption adds another layer of issues related to language, food and culture, regardless of the country of origin. Climate, too can be a shock for children from the tropics who wind up in snow-bound regions, or vice versa.

"The fact that they're coming from an impoverished country and speak another language, we routinely deal with those issues very successfully," said Mary Robinson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C. "What's different is the disaster these children have witnessed. They saw their whole country literally fall down. Some may have seen friends or caretakers die. Any individual who witnesses these things is going to have trauma. Add that on top of the usual challenges of a child coming from another country."

Add also the fact that these children may have bonded with each other during their time at the orphanage and now are going off in many directions with their new parents in the U.S., Canada and Spain.

Ms. Robinson said adoption agencies have social workers to help children and families and refer them for trauma services when necessary.

In general, she said, the younger the child, the easier the transition, because their brains and personality are still in early stages of development. In addition, young children will be home playing with their new parents, while 10-year-olds will be going to school, where the challenges are greater.

"The children on this airplane will have post-traumatic stress trauma in addition to whatever else they experienced in their life," said Sandra McLaughlin, director of the Pittsburgh branch of Bethany Christian Services, which has placed children from Haiti and has offered to help with the airlifted orphans who need homes.

"The parents will really have to spend time with their children," she said. "They will probably be clingy and afraid. They're likely to have to sleep with them on the floor for a while to make sure they feel secure. The children probably will be overeating because they haven't had enough food, and because children use food as security.

"All these things will be escalated because of their experience with the earthquake. They will need a lot of extra attention and services, counseling and maybe some special education. The period of adjustment is usually a year, but this may take longer than we typically see. The kids may regress when they arrive. It's important to get them into activities with other kids, especially for language development and social integration."

It's also important for siblings to stay together, she said, since they've already lost so much in their young lives.

Marc Andreas of Grand Rapids, Mich., felt that way when he and his wife adopted two Haitian sisters two years ago, ages 9 and 7.

"Separating them would have been unthinkable," said Mr. Andreas, who is national marketing director of Bethany Christian Services. His daughters were considered "special needs" because they were older.

"They're more set in their ways with habits and personality," he said. "But whether a child is from Haiti or Erie, you need to embrace who they are and where they came from. Language barriers are the least of the problems."

More important than age, he said, is the conditions a child comes from.

"There are very young children with malnutrition, physical or mental impairments that have to be taken into consideration when finding the right family," Mr. Andreas said.

One thing unique to children from Haiti is that the country is so close.

"From China or Russia, that's a world away. Haiti's only an hour flight from Miami. Families can go back and visit when the children are the right age to help the country rebuild. They can embrace and celebrate the food, music, dress and other parts of the Creole culture."

Some 20,000 children were living in Haiti's 187 licensed orphanages before the earthquake, according to a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed by 45 members of Congress

The letter, dated yesterday, thanked Mrs. Clinton for her "outstanding leadership" in coordinating the U.S. response to the earthquake, and asks her to make the children a high priority in any U.S. evacuation plans. It also asks her to work with various agencies to funnel food and aid to the orphans, to find them temporary care and shelter during the crisis and hasten delivery to their adoptive families in the U.S.

Also yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced an expanded humanitarian parole policy allowing Haiti's orphans to enter the United States to ensure that they receive the care they need. The announcement said the U.S. is committed to family reunification in Haiti whenever possible.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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