Page last updated at 23:41 GMT, Saturday, 30 January 2010

Haiti quake orphans trapped by red tape

Lovely at the orphanage in Haiti
Lovely's adoption papers have been lost in the earthquake

Dozens of Haitian orphans have been airlifted to the US after authorities there said they would speed up the adoption process - but hundreds more are caught up in red tape. The BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani has followed the story of a girl called Lovely.

Haiti's earthquake destroyed not just buildings, but families too. Now in its chaotic aftermath, we drive through the crowded ruins of Port-au-Prince to the suburb of Carrefour, past corrugated tin shacks, now leaning into each other, and narrow side alleys choked with debris.

We are looking for one small child, trapped not by rubble but by bureaucracy.

At an orphanage I show them a photograph of a girl called Lovely.

It was given to me by the American couple who are hoping to become her new parents.


At home in Los Angeles, Janelle and Bryan Benedict showed me a video they took when they last visited the girl last summer.

They have been working through the lengthy adoption process since Lovely was six months old. She turned two on the day of the earthquake and their anguish was clear.

"I worry about her," says Janelle. "About the fear she is experiencing. We just want to get her out of there as quickly as possible."

But they are in a difficult position.

Like hundreds of other Haitian orphans, Lovely's adoption papers were stored in government buildings that collapsed in the quake.

At the orphanage where Lovely lives, dozens of children have parents overseas, desperate to get them out.

Most seem oblivious to the destruction around them. Their smiles light up their faces - and ours.

Lovely at the orphanage in Haiti
Lovely is malnourished and has an infection on her arm

Lovely is carried out to meet us. She is tiny through malnourishment, her arm bears the sores of an infection and her eyes barely register our presence. But what horrors she must have seen.

The 70 or so orphans here all survived the quake.

We see only the front of the building but it does not look seriously damaged, and the level of care seems good.

But two sister orphanages in Petionville and Leogane were badly damaged and those children are now here, a house overcrowded with tiny evacuees.

There are also American parents staying here. They felt they could speed up the evacuation of their little ones by coming here in person.

They need the Haitian government to give its stamp of approval for the children to leave.

But an already lumbering bureaucracy has been knocked off its feet.

Confusion reigns and leads to delays.

The buses drive through the airport gates and straight on to the tarmac. This is what happens when the Americans speed things up

In addition, some aid agencies are calling for a halt to adoptions, because they believe the earthquake has provided an opportunity for child traffickers.

With papers lost, it's harder for would-be parents to prove they were already part of the adoption process before the earthquake, and the worry is criminals could take advantage.

That means Lovely and hundreds more children must wait and endure.

The next day we visit the US embassy, guarded by armed American soldiers.

They patrol outside and across the street, weapons on show, even though this is foreign soil. Reporters are tolerated, Haitians moved on.

We see more than 100 people queuing in the blazing sun to get in.

More on nearby street corners, being corralled by US troops. Many hold yellow manila document envelopes.

The US says it is cutting through red tape to speed up existing adoptions. Many want to go, but many are turned away.

I encounter a large group of very emotional women, all of them Haitian Americans who have travelled back to try to get loved ones out.

But they tell me officials won't let them bring all their family members back to America.

Mireille Plaisimond, from New York City, shows me some US home ownership papers - proof, she says, that she can support the four children she wants to take back to America.

Plane with orphans bound for Paris
Other flights have taken Haitian orphans to new homes in France

Christiane Joseph angrily brandishes her US passport, while Sandra Joseph Marquis from Florida wails: "what is the point of being a US citizen if our government won't help us?"

It is clear that emotions are running high in the dusty heat of Haiti's collapse.

While we are at the embassy, I get a text from a man called Randy Presley from Oklahoma.

On my way to Haiti I had met him and his adopted Haitian daughter Eliana.

They were on their way back to rescue her four-year-old brother Christopher.

Now Randy tells me they and 40 more orphans are inside the embassy unable to get out of the country.

He says they have been there for three days, sleeping on mats on the floor, refusing to leave.

Several hours and many confused text messages later (our phones don't work to make calls), he tells me they are boarding buses for the airport.

We wait. More armed guards appear at the gate and then two buses pull out of the compound.

On board are Randy, his family, and 40 more Haitian children and their carers are on their way to a new life. They wave as we draw alongside.

"We made it," Randy shouts out of the window as they speed past.

We follow as the buses drive through the airport gates and straight on to the tarmac. This is what happens when the Americans speed things up.

Next to a giant US military cargo plane is a passenger jet. It has been privately chartered by a Mormon group, many of whom are adopting Haitian children.

The plane flew in the night before, loaded with supplies.

The plane... is a frenzied scene, the cabin echoing with the wails of nervous children

The children were supposed to be on it then, but were held up.

The pilot refused to leave without his precious cargo.

Now, there are no delays.

Clutching documents that say "evacuated orphan", the children and their carers clamour to board the plane.

One woman stands on the steps to the cabin clutching her adopted baby girl.

She looks around, choking back tears, as if taking in this scene of destruction for the last time.

Then we are told that Lovely may be among this group. We board the plane and start looking. It is a frenzied scene, the cabin echoing with the wails of nervous children.

A woman is crying.

"Is that relief on your face?" I ask her.

"For the ones that made it, yes, but for the ones I had to leave behind, no," she says.

Many of the children from Lovely's orphanage are here, but we can't see her.


I show her photo around. Some people think they have seen her, others don't know. There is confusion.

We get off the plane as the last children board. Still no sign of Lovely but we are sure she is in this group.

A US official tells us she has seen the girl and will take us to her.

We walk across the tarmac, away from the plane, through the terminal building and out to the front where a row of white tents stand, covering several people in hospital-type clothes. They are all cradling tiny children.

We find Lovely. Lee Everton from Utah Hospital Task Force is holding her. She is sleeping peacefully.

But there's a problem.

"The Haitian government didn't stamp her papers," he tells me, his eyes puffy and red.

"Does that mean she can't get on?" I ask him.

"Not today," he says.

She must go back to the orphanage while Haiti's crumbled bureaucracy runs its course.

Her new life in America must wait.

I am dreading telling her parents. As I pull out my phone, I see Bryan Benedict has already e-mailed me. They are crushed by this setback, he tells me.

All the while, Lovely has remained fast asleep in Lee's arms.

At least she is unaware of the chaos around her.

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