The first time Dan and Julie Cruz met the little girl with the wide eyes and bright smile, she looked up, stretched out her arms and silently motioned to be picked up.
“It was an awesome moment,” recalled Dan, 35, about meeting Angelene, who was abandoned by her parents before her fourth birthday, and can neither hear, speak nor sign. “It was more than we could have ever imagined; lots of tears.”
The Cruzes encounter with then 5-year-old Angelene at a Port-au-Prince orphanage a year ago was among the steps in what U.S. and Haitian officials are now calling a more transparent and predictable adoption process. It reached its culmination Friday as the family arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince to get Angelene’s travel documents.
Instead of the old adoption visa, Angelene received an IH-3 Hague visa, signifying that Haiti had finally come into full compliance with the Hague Adoption Convention regulating international adoptions. Not only is 7-year-old Angelene the first Haitian adoptee to receive the special Hague visa — which will make her an automatic U.S. citizen as soon as her flight comes into U.S. airspace — but her new parents became the first Americans to adopt under the new inter-country regulations.
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“It’s a great moment,” said Keith Murphy, the U.S. embassy’s adoptions officer, who has been working closely with Haiti’s child welfare agency, the Institute of Social Well-Being and Research (IBESR), to develop the new adoption safeguards under Hague. “The process is important, but we do often get lost in the morass of regulations and bureaucracy. Being able to see the family with their new child, and the pure joy they have on their faces, it really makes all the work worth it.”
Being able to see the family with their new child, and the pure joy they have on their faces, it really makes all the work worth it.
Keith Murphy, U.S. adoptions officer in Haiti
Dan and Julie Cruz agree. The couple, who lives outside of Philadelphia and flew to Haiti on Thursday, threw a party for Angelene shortly after their arrival. The yellow, white, green and blue cake said it all: Bon Voyage.
“She knows, we are her parents,” said Dan, who has been sending Angelene photos of her new siblings, who have been learning sign language to welcome their new sister. “She already signs mom and dad.”
The couple, who are devout Christians, say they didn’t set out to make history when they started the adoption process, which now has many more steps and requirements from both U.S. and Haitian authorities.
“This is God’s plan for us,” said Dan, who owns his own bookkeeping business. “We have a big faith in God, and he worked all of this out for us.”
The parents of four biological children, the Cruzes always wanted to adopt. But the first time the couple applied to adopt a child from Haiti, they met neither the age nor the marriage requirement. Haitian law required adoptive parents to be at least 35 years old, and married for 10 years.
Then came 2012. Haiti was two years into its recovery from the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that left some 300,000 children homeless and put the country’s broken adoption system under a cloud of scrutiny as children were airlifted to the United States without proper documentation, and a group of missionaries were accused of kidnapping 33 Haitians kids.
Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, the director of IBESR, knew an overhaul was needed. Adoptions had become a messy and corrupt process in Haiti, where parents were often pressured into signing away their rights and children were treated like a commodity as they were sold onto the black market and smuggled out of the country.
“Adoptions used to take five, six years. That wasn’t normal. It had become a way for people to make money,” said Villedrouin, who temporarily shut down international adoptions in 2012 as she tried to clean up the child welfare agency, regulate hundred of orphanages and develop new child protection legislation to comply with Hague. “We had no choice but to do the reforms.”
In June 2012, two days after hearing personally from Haitian children about how the country’s lax laws failed to protect them from abuse and exploitation, parliament ratified the Hague Adoption Convention.
“For three years, we’ve been working on the reforms and today it’s effective,” Villedrouin said, adding that the changes are now “irreversible.” “We’ve made a lot of advances, and adoptions have now become a measure of protection.”
Among the changes, there is now an annual quota on international adoptions. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens looking to adopt, also must go through an accredited adoption service provider in the United States and apply under the special rules.
A lot of friends from our church have been praying for it for a long time. But we are really excited to bring her home.
“They go through a home study, they go through financial records, criminal records, background checks, and they make the determination that this family is not only able to adopt but to care for a particular type or number of children throughout the process,” Murphy said.
After potential parents have been approved through their adoption services provider, the couple must then apply to IBESR.
It is IBESR, which doesn’t allow private adoptions under Haitian law, that ultimately determines “the adoptability of children,” Villedrouin said.
Haitian investigators are required to not only counsel biological parents about “what adoption is and help them understand that the moment they sign, the child is no longer theirs,” but they also must determine if there are other relatives who can care for the child. The goal, all say, is what’s in the best interest of the child.
“There are a lot of steps,” Murphy said. “But they are used for ensuring that the child’s interests are maintained and advocated for and that the U.S. parents understand the situation and that it’s transparent and ethical and objective. That is why there are so many steps and so many parties involved to ensure that this process can be done.”
While most welcome the overhaul, critics say the changes severely limit adoptions in an impoverished country where there are between 30,000 and 35,000 children in some 770 orphanages. The process also remains a lengthy one and can take up to two years, as in the case of the Cruzes.
Morgan Grubb, Haiti country director for Lifeline Children’s Services of Alabama, the Christian adoption agency that the Cruzes applied through, said the Hague-certified agency feels positive about the changes going forward. At least 60 couples, she said, are waiting to adopt children from Haiti.
Susan Krabacher, who runs residential centers and schools for disabled and abandoned children in Haiti, also welcomes the tightening of the controls. But unlike Grubb, Krabacher is opposed to adoptions out of Haiti after having once been a proponent.
Last year, Krabacher launched a campaign to warn Haitian mothers not to give up their children to recruiters from orphanages, who often pressure mothers to sign away their children without fully explaining the ramifications. Krabacher’s foot soldiers walk the streets of rural communities with megaphones and go on donkeys into the mountains.
Krabacher said she changed her adoption stance after the earthquake. She was flooded, she said, with adoption requests. But instead of asking for one of the many children who were handicapped, she said, potential parents “cherry picked” the kids.
“After that I decided I would not do any adoptions anymore,” she said. “Every kid that we take, we are committed to raising them 100 percent inside their own country with Haitian culture. They are getting to know Haiti and love Haiti. We are teaching them to really love their country.”
Still, she commends the Cruzes decision to adopt a child who is deaf and mute. Dan Cruz, who runs a deaf ministry at his church, said it was a top priority for him and Julie when they contacted Lifeline about adopting in Haiti.
“A lot of friends from our church have been praying for it for a long time,” he said, aware of the challenges, from bonding to language skills. “But we are really excited to bring her home.”
The United States leads adoptions of Haitian children followed by France, Germany and Haiti.
A look at Haiti's documented international adoptions in recent years
Source: The Institute of Social Well-Being and Research