Out of Haiti, bearing stories of hope and loss

Tragedy speeds adoption of little Valencia

By Stephanie Ebbert and Beth Daley
Globe Staff / January 23, 2010

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She arrived with her hair neatly braided, wearing tiny, purple Crocs - a ray of hope from a place that has seen too much darkness.

Valencia, a 5-year-old Haitian orphan, landed at Logan Airport last night with her new family from Swampscott. The Laytons had been trying to adopt her for nearly three years and were surprised to find the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in her homeland had not further complicated but rather expedited her arrival.

“It’s very emotional. We’re excited and scared and just happy to have her home,’’ said Jared Layton.

As he and his wife, Teresa, brought Valencia and their two children back from Florida, friends met them near the baggage claim at Logan, unfurling a long handmade banner that said, “Welcome Home Valencia.’’

“Do you think it’s too much?’’ worried Erica Redding of Woburn, who brought her two children and a small stuffed Big Bird to greet Valencia.

Passersby thought not.

“Best of luck,’’ said one woman, wishing the friends well. “I’ve been reading about this.’’

Valencia looked tired and a bit wary, as the Laytons’ friends excitedly greeted her and cameras recorded her arrival. She was one of the lucky children whose adoptions were well underway when the earthquake struck. She was lucky, too, that her orphanage, Crèche De L’Enfant Jesus, was safely outside of Port-au-Prince, and only had minor damage.

“We thought, ‘She’s safe, but it’s probably going to be a couple months before she comes home,’ ’’ Teresa Layton said.

Even before the earthquake, adopting from Haiti meant putting up with long waits - sometimes more than the three years the Laytons endured - to bring children to the United States. The United Nations, in 2008, put the number of children in Haitian orphanages at roughly 380,000 after a string of natural disasters there, but cautioned many of those youngsters may not be orphans. Poverty-stricken parents often drop children off at the facilities to be fed or to receive medical attention, only to come back for them the following week or month.

In addition, the Haitian adoption system is plagued by lost paperwork and unclear procedures, according to parents waiting for children and adoption agencies familiar with the process.

Since the earthquake, US government officials have been working to get the estimated 900 Haitian children in the US adoption pipeline out of Haiti. On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced she would waive visa requirements, and by yesterday, joyous stories like the Laytons’ were becoming more frequent, although there is no estimate how many children have made it out of the country.

A State Department spokeswoman said last night that 400 humanitarian visas for children to enter the country had been given out since the earthquake, including 93 Thursday. Spokeswoman Megan Mattson said US officials were being “vigilant not to separate children from relatives’’ and were concerned about child trafficking.

Yesterday, US Senators John F. Kerry and Paul Kirk wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, urging her to expedite the adoption process.

“Dozens of families in Massachusetts are in agony waiting to be united with their adopted children while these kids are at risk without basic human services,’’ said Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Still for those heartbroken by the devastation in Haiti who would like to adopt children, it may be a long wait - even though the earthquake probably created thousands of new orphans. That’s because it will take months or longer to investigate each child’s story to ensure they are orphaned and that adoption is the best option for them.

In the best of times, “it’s a long, complicated process’’ to ensure the children are legitimate orphans, said Christopher de Bono, a UNICEF spokesman.

“All systems are down in the country right now,’’ said Debbie Mansfield, deputy director of programs for Wide Horizons for Children in Waltham, an adoption agency that deals domestically and internationally, but not in Haiti. Her agency and others have been inundated with calls from families eager to adopt or help in some way.

“People want to help, it is human nature . . . but there is a process, an investigation that needs to take place for each child,’’ she said.

Within hours of the quake, Valencia’s prospective parents learned by e-mail that she was safe, but they had no idea how swiftly she would be able to join them.

“It’s amazing,’’ said Jared Layton. “We’ve been in the process for almost three years and we were, we felt, about a week away from getting her home when the earthquake took place. We needed a check mark on her visa and so when the earthquake took place, we just didn’t know what was going to happen.’’

Yet this week, the Laytons were bound for Fort Lauderdale, where Valencia arrived with their name taped to her sleeve.

The Laytons had a daughter, Tallie, now 4, when they began the adoption process, and have had another child, Beckett, who is not yet a year old. Their adoption process was slowed because they had biological children, Layton said.

“There are laws that I don’t understand,’’ he said.

Tallie has been excited for years to get a big sister, he said.

“Last night, they just wore the same jammies and they giggled,’’ he said. “It was really cute. They had a lot of fun.’’

Valencia nestled into her new mother’s arms as she took in the scene. The Laytons had visited her in her orphanage and gotten to know her a bit. But right now, they can barely communicate; Valencia speaks only Creole.

“We made it through today with ‘potty’ and ‘food.’ And I think we’ll both learn,’’ Layton said.

“My wife and I always felt that adoption was the right thing for our family. When we looked into domestic and international adoption, we just fell in love with Haiti and knew there were kids there that needed homes,’’ he said, his eyes brimming with tears. “And that was something we could provide.’’

Five friends from their church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Lynnfield, surprised them at the airport with signs and gifts. Terry Gilbert brought a Brooks Brothers bag filled with comforts for the new extended family - a videotape of national news footage Thursday night that captured the Laytons and Valencia in the airport in Fort Lauderdale, as well as a dinner of homemade chicken nuggets, rosemary potatoes and carrots, clementines, and heart-shaped cookies.

She wasn’t sure what Valencia would like to eat. Neither are her new parents.

“There’s a lot of things we’re just going to learn on the fly,’’ said Jared Layton.