PENFIELD, N.Y. – Under a towering Christmas tree, 3-year-old Sevil Fletcher giggled in delight amid some not-so-rough roughhousing with his brother and sister.
There were snow drifts outside the comfortable suburban home, and the warmth of a close-knit family inside, as his parents, Brian and Emily Fletcher, recounted how Sevil — his infancy spent in a faraway orphanage — came to be their son.
It's a remarkable tale, all the more so because it is shared to a degree by hundreds of other American families who were seeking to adopt children from Haiti when the cataclysmic earthquake struck nearly a year ago, on Jan. 12.
There was initial panic, then a welcome update that the child was alive. Next came more worry and doubt — would the quake-induced chaos in Haiti further delay adoptions that in many cases were still a year or two away from completion?
"All of a sudden it was, 'What's going to happen to my baby? Am I ever going to get him home?" Emily Fletcher remembered thinking.
And then, for these particular families and children, uplifting news at a time of so much death and destruction: An unprecedented commitment by the U.S. government to allow these children in the adoption pipeline to be airlifted swiftly to America even though their paperwork was incomplete.
Sevil and many other orphans were flown to the U.S. within 10 days of the quake, and by April the program began to phase out. In all, it has enabled about 1,150 Haitian children to be placed with adoptive families across America — among them Sevil with the Fletchers and their two biological children in this town just east of Rochester, N.Y.
It wasn't perfect. A few airlifted children weren't actually in the adoption pipeline and arguably should have stayed in Haiti. A few adoptive families, faced with a suddenly expedited timetable, gave up their plans and relinquished children to federal authorities.
Overall, though, the operation was a striking example of multiple government agencies working with each other, Haitian authorities and the adoption community to get a huge number of children out of danger and into welcoming homes.
"It was absolutely unprecedented, and it was unbelievably fast," said Tom DeFilipo of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, which represents many adoption agencies. "Getting kids out of harm's way was the motivating factor."
Prior to the quake, there'd never been more than 355 adoptions from Haiti by Americans in any one year. Suddenly, adoption agencies and federal authorities faced triple that caseload — scrambling in just a few months to get orphans to the U.S. who otherwise would have been processed over the next several years.
There was pressure on all parties — from the families to the government bureaucracy — to improvise, in some cases dealing with children who were gravely ill or hadn't yet learned about the concept of adoption.
Kim Batts of Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest adoption agencies, saw the response first hand as she and her colleagues assisted more than 50 families, including the Fletchers.
"Some of the adjustments didn't go as smoothly as they might otherwise, because it was so quick and the kids were dealing with another layer of trauma from the earthquake," she said. "But overall the families have been able to push through and the kids are doing well."
DeFilipo said less than a dozen of the planned adoptions had fallen through.
"We expected more," he said. "You had traumatized kids, traumatized families, agencies that maybe did 10 adoptions a year all of a sudden having 50."
Many families faced long delays in formalizing the adoptions and getting U.S. citizenship for their new sons and daughters. Earlier this month, Congress approved a bill that will enable the children to become citizens much faster than the normal two-year process.
From the first days after the quake, the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services were deeply involved in the operation.
"Sometimes there's a view that government agencies have trouble working together," said Sharon Parrott, counselor on human services with HHS. "But in responding to disaster, and with this mission in particular, we and our federal and local partners proved our capacity to work across boundaries and provide help in real time."
Not everyone was enamored by the U.S. program, and the similar though smaller initiatives by France, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.
International Social Service, a Swiss-based nonprofit active in scores of countries, said in a report that some of the evacuations were too hasty and should have been delayed at least until more parents could have traveled to Haiti to accompany the children back to their new homes.
Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption, said the challenge was to get the right children out of a disaster zone as soon as feasible while guarding against child-trafficking and double-checking whether the children had surviving kin.
"All in all, I think it went great," he said. "Even the mistakes that were made, it sets the foundation for when we might ever have to do something like this again."
One of the heroes was Pius Bannis, field office director in Haiti for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was recently honored as federal employee of the year for the post-quake assistance he gave desperate families trying to gain custody of children they'd been matched with.
Along with working 20-hour days, Bannis set up an improvised day-care center in the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, accommodating dozens of children, often scared and hungry. He supplied diapers, clothes and food, and drove some of the children to the airport for evacuation flights.
Back at USCIS offices in Washington, Bannis was supported by a round-the-clock operations center that kept in close contact with the adoptive families. Some the staff, including USCIS branch chief Whitney Reitz, had helped devise the plan for using humanitarian parole to get the Haitian children into the U.S.
"We were brainstorming like mad, trying to figure out what the government could do in response to this awful tragedy," Reitz said. "We came up with this idea that we could reach out to these children because we knew who they were — they were already matched with U.S. families."
"It's the highest moment in my career, that I got to be part of something that made such a difference," she said.
Among the grateful couples are Elizabeth and Tim Moore of Lexington, Va., who'd been matched with a Haitian girl named Lily back in May 2007 when she was just six weeks old.
When the quake hit, Elizabeth Moore had been on the verge of traveling to Haiti for what she hoped would be a final round of adoption formalities.
Rather than being deterred by the quake, she flew to Port-au-Prince on Jan. 18 and spent the next 10 days combining visits to the U.S. Embassy with stints volunteering at a hospital.
The last four nights, she and Lily — along with other adoptive parents — camped out in the embassy, not wanting to risk missing any crucial updates about evacuation plans.
When they finally landed in Miami, and encountered some potential immigration problems, Moore called Reitz in tears at 2:30 a.m. to ask for help.
"I was desperate — she told me what I needed to say," Moore recalled. "She went so far above and beyond — it made a huge difference to our family."
Now, back in Lexington, where Tim Moore teaches civil engineering at Virginia Military Institute, the household is livelier than it was a year ago. At the time of the quake, the Moores had a 13-month-old biological daughter, and Elizabeth gave birth to another daughter six months ago, so there are now three little girls on the scene.
Lily is taking ballet classes and mastering playground equipment after initial trepidation.
"People say 'What a lucky girl.' They have it wrong," Elizabeth Moore said. "Lily has taught us so much about love, life, survival ... We are so, so lucky."
Tim Franklin, a Congregational pastor from Bridport, Vt., and wife, Annette, were in Jamaica on Jan. 12, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary when the hotel's chandeliers started swaying and the water in the pool sloshed mysteriously.
Three hundred miles away, Haiti was shaking. And there, their 3-year-old adoptive daughter-to-be, Gedeleine, was one of Sevil's companions at the God's Littlest Angels orphanage near Port-au-Prince.
The Franklins have four biological children ranging in age from 7 to 19. But in 2007 they initiated efforts to adopt an HIV-positive Haitian girl. She died in 2008; a few weeks later, the couple applied to adopt Gedeleine, who also is HIV-positive.
They met her on a brief visit to Haiti in mid-2009 and had hoped to complete the adoption by this fall. Plans changed when they learned of the quake.
"I don't want to say panic — but we were in a panic," recalled Annette Franklin.
Once assured that Gedeleine was safe, they began inquiring how quickly they could get her out of Haiti.
"There was a flurry of conflicting information . ," Tim Franklin said. "It was a roller-coaster up and down."
On short notice, the Franklins and other families matched with God's Littlest Angels orphans got word that 82 children would be airlifted to Miami on Jan 21.
The flight actually arrived early on the 22nd after anxious families had waited for hours in Terminal G. Only after hours more of immigration proceedings did the Franklins finally embrace Gedeleine around 9 a.m., and they returned on the 23rd to Bridport, a town of about 1,200 people along the New York state border
"We didn't have her bedroom completely ready. And if we'd had more warning, we would have had health insurance papers ready to go," Tim Franklin said. "But we were so thrilled she was coming to safety that none of the other stuff mattered."
Gedeleine is now prospering, according to her parents — unfazed by a twice-daily regimen of three medicines to suppress HIV.
The family continues to follow events in Haiti, in particular the plight of children wracked by malnutrition or dying of cholera.
"That could have been Gedeleine," said her mother.
"We're so grateful she's here," said Tim Franklin. "Our hearts go out to those little kids in Haiti. ...You wish there was some way to do more."
For the Fletchers, first word of the quake came to Emily, who got a call from her brother and relayed the news to Brian at his engineering job in Rochester. Both were in anguished uncertainty about Sevil until late that night, when the God's Littlest Angels orphanage advised on its Web site that the facility was intact and all its children, though scared and spending the night outdoors, were unhurt.
Even so, the adoptive parents remained worried. A Haitian judge overseeing international adoptions was killed in the quake; much of the relevant paperwork was destroyed.
But instead of delaying the process, the quake expedited it. American officials announced Jan. 18 that Haitian children who'd advanced beyond the initial phases of adoption proceedings would be granted "humanitarian parole" and allowed into the U.S. on an emergency basis.
The Fletchers hurried to Miami to join the high-stress vigil in Terminal G, and flew back to Rochester on the afternoon of Jan. 22 with their new son. Sevil, used to the company of dozens of small children at the orphanage, soon met his new siblings — Isaac, who's now 6, and Cora, now 4.
"He was really happy to see us," Isaac said.
Sevil has relished his introduction to snow, ice cream and water slides. He's acquired English rapidly, and his parents have enrolled Sevil in a preschool for next year.
The Fletchers said Sevil has a version of cerebral palsy that causes some muscular weakness on his right side, but he's benefiting from weekly physical therapy sessions and his long-term prognosis is good.
"He is a persistent kid," said his mother. "He gets it into his head that he wants to accomplish something, and he will keep trying."
For the Fletchers, Sevil's unexpectedly speedy arrival meant no time for planned study of Creole, and they gratefully accepted extra children's clothes donated by friends.
Looking ahead, the Fletchers are braced for challenges. They gave careful thought to their decision to pursue a transracial adoption while living in a town where less than 3 percent of the 35,000 residents are black.
"It's going to be a lot harder to raise a child who doesn't look like us," said Emily Fletcher. "In some ways Sevil's life might have been easier if he'd been adopted by an African-American family."
She and her husband said their devout Christian faith — and the elemental desire to help a homeless child find a loving home — fueled their efforts.
"Those things take you only so far," Brian Fletcher said. "This year hasn't been all wonderful. But our family has benefited from having a special child like Sevil ... and understanding life from perspectives we never had before."
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