Orphans biding time, 'doing great'
Sister Linda Yankoski: "The U.S. government is being very careful about where they're going to go ..."
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Every day, they beg to be taken outside to play in that wondrous stuff called snow. When they're asked to help set the table, they find silverware in drawers marked in English and Creole. They read "The Singing Turtle and Other Tales from Haiti," play with trucks, remote-control cars and Legos.
And the youngest, an 11-month old, is just beginning to walk.
One month after the dramatic Jan. 18 airlift of 54 children stranded at a Haiti orphanage with their caregivers Ali and Jamie McMutrie of Ben Avon, the 12 children placed at Holy Family Institute in Emsworth are settling in comfortably while waiting for the time when they, too, will get families of their own.
"They're doing great," said Sister Linda Yankoski, the longtime head of Holy Family, which houses about 50 other children, noting that they "love the cold weather. They want to play outside all the time."
It's a far cry from the heat and chaos of their last days in Haiti, after an earthquake Jan. 13 demolished much of the BRESMA orphanage where they lived, forcing them to camp outdoors with limited supplies of food and water.
While the McMutries' pleas for help ultimately resulted in a successful rescue mission led by Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, these may be among the last orphans airlifted out of Haiti for a while.
Just last week, efforts by the McMutrie sisters to bring a second group of 12 children to the U.S. ended in failure. And the Haitian government, which recently arrested 10 Baptist missionaries for trying to bring 33 undocumented children into the Dominican Republic, has clamped down on out-of-country adoptions.
The fear of child trafficking is palpable in Haiti, where on Saturday angry men temporarily blocked a U.S. group with six Haitian children cleared for adoption at the airport as they were preparing to leave for the United States. They are scheduled to leave Haiti today.
The 54 BRESMA children got out Jan. 18 after being granted humanitarian parole by the Office of Homeland Security -- after many frantic phone calls that ended with word from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to let the children through.
Most of the children aboard the flight fit into two categories of humanitarian parole outlined by Department of Homeland Security in a document released Jan. 18 -- the very same day as the BRESMA airlift -- designed "to bring otherwise inadmissible individuals into the country on account of urgent humanitarian reasons or other emergencies."
Humanitarian parole would be applied on a case-by-case basis to those "legally confirmed as orphans" eligible for intercountry adoption by the Government of Haiti and being adopted by U.S. citizens, or children "previously identified by an adoption service provider or facilitator as eligible for intercountry adoption and have been matched to U.S. citizen prospective adoptive parents."
Leslie McCombs, a senior UPMC consultant who helped coordinate the Jan. 18 mission, said, "Every single one of those children had their relinquishment papers signed by a parent," asserting that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol "would never have processed them if their papers weren't in line."
But the 12 children now at Holy Family, who range in age from 11 months to 10 years of age, did not precisely fit either category for humanitarian parole. None had adoptive families waiting for them or had yet been matched with a prospective adoptive family.
It's not clear exactly why they were eligible, except that in this one instance, there seemed to be a meeting of the minds between the United States and Haiti.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said the 12 children were allowed into the country after "the U.S. Government solidified and implemented a process for the removal of certain Haitian orphans to the U.S., in conjunction with the Government of Haiti."
"The decision to grant humanitarian parole and admit all the orphans aboard to the U.S. was one made in the best interest of the children at the time during the early days of an extraordinary situation," he added.
While thousands of children in Haiti are in the same situation today -- indeed, prior to the earthquake, UNICEF estimated that 380,000 "orphans" lived there -- in the urgent early days after the earthquake, the facts of this particular case were compelling, U.S. officials said.
"We're talking about an orphanage that was completely destroyed," said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, who was in Haiti at the time of the airlift. "Anyone who had a heart" would have seen the logic behind letting these children in, he said.
Still, the Red Cross is currently conducting a "trace" in Haiti of the 12 children, making sure that no family members remain who want to claim them and no other problems exist, said Sister Linda, who is being assisted in caring for the children by a well-regarded New York agency with expertise in residential care, Children's Village, which is under contract to the federal government to oversee the Haitian children.
While she has received hundreds of phone calls from families wishing to adopt the children, none will proceed until that trace is completed.
"The U.S. government is being very careful about where they're going to go ... and I hope that if they let us weigh in on their placements, they will be sent to live with families closely resembling their culture."
Three Haitians are currently on staff, and "a whole cadre of Haitian volunteers are here working with the kids," she said.
While Holy Family is being reimbursed by the federal government for costs associated with caring for them, Sister Linda said she has also managed to raise nearly $50,000 -- but, she adds with a laugh, still needs more donations.
The children do not have any contact with the facility's other residents, who range from 9 to 19 years in age, most of them not orphans but from at-risk families struggling with poverty, substance abuse and behavioral problems.
Last year, Ohio Township Police received 151 calls from Holy Family staffers.
Sister Linda contends that number actually looks worse that it is. Of those calls, she said, 84 involved reports of runaway children -- many of them missing during visits to their homes -- while others officially reported as runaways when they were actually a half-hour late to a class or curfew, she said.
The rest involved false fire alarms and false 911 calls, fighting, and nine assaults, including an incident where a child kicked a teacher.
Her "regular" residents, who live at Holy Family on average for about a year before returning to their families or being placed in foster care or adoption, willingly gave up their rooms in one of the facility's cottages to make room for the Haitian newcomers.
"They're proud to have them here, even if they can't see them," she said.
First Published February 24, 2010 12:00 am