AP National Writer
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 one another, 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,” Batts 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. In early December, 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.
Not everyone was enamored of 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.