Child rescued from Haiti rubble is orphaned again
Time was up, not 10 minutes into the visit. The social worker went to pull the 3-year-old orphan out of the arms of the woman he calls “Momma.”
The boy turned his face and dug his hands into her clothes. He kicked his legs. He screamed as they carried him away.
Tamara Palinka covered her mouth to hold back the sobs. The 37-year-old Canadian volunteer aid worker did not know when – or if – she would get another glimpse of the child she was desperately trying to adopt.
International adoption has always been a sensitive subject in Haiti, a reminder that the country is too poor to care for its own. After January’s quake, the Haitian government effectively slammed the door shut on most adoptions altogether. With no foster care system and virtually no domestic adoption in Haiti, untold numbers of children orphaned by the quake – like the 3-year-old known as Sonson – now face a lifetime inside an institution.
The crackdown on adoption came in response to two incidents. First, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell flew 53 children from a destroyed orphanage run by two Pittsburgh sisters back to the U.S., after a tense standoff with officials at the Haiti airport. Then a group of U.S. missionaries tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country without papers, claiming they were orphans when in fact all had at least one living parent.
Infuriated, the Haitian government announced that all children leaving the country would need the signature of Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Since then, the government has relented somewhat, but it still allows only the adoption of children orphaned before the quake or those relinquished by their parents in the presence of a judge.
“The sad part is that because of a few people’s mistakes, children that could find a good home and are waiting for a home will now have to suffer for years – and may never get a home at all,” says Miriam Frederick, founder of the New Life Childrens Home orphanage.
At another orphanage, Sonson sits apart from the other children.
He stares at the floor.
“Who is your momma?” asks an orphanage worker. “Mara,” he whispers. “Do you miss her?” He nods.
The first thing people saw after the ground stopped shaking on Jan. 12 was the thick, white cloud. It was the dust kicked up by hundreds of falling buildings. People pulled out of the destruction looked like they had been doused in flour.
Three weeks passed before anyone noticed the 3-year-old. The only part of him not covered in white dust was his foot, which was stained red with blood.
Two women saw him playing by himself on top of a destroyed house and assumed his parents were nearby. But after four days and nights, they realized he spent all day on top of the rubble by himself.
Then they noticed his belly was getting bigger, a sign of malnutrition. He was picking through the rubble for trash to eat. They carried him to the nearby office of the Salvation Army.
The toddler was covered with dust, didn’t talk and looked dazed, according to the charity’s report. His foot was infected, so they transferred him to a field hospital set up by the University of Miami on the grounds of the airport.
Palinka could hear the hospital before she saw it.
Hundreds of people were screaming. Children moaned in pain as nurses changed bandages on their raw stumps. Families yelled out for help for their dying relatives.
For the next two months, she often worked 24-hour shifts without a break. She was paged when the generator stopped working, when the medical supplies ran low, when the water ran out and multiple times a day when a patient died.
“Everyday I catch my heart in my throat,” she wrote in a journal entry.
An athletic blond, Palinka had been working drafting safety procedures at an oil refinery. By the time the quake hit Haiti, she had enough saved up to take a leave of absence.
She had been at the hospital for three weeks when the 3-year-old was brought in and placed in a cot. It was dark when they told her an orphan had been rescued from a trash pile.
The other children in the pediatric ward had parents nearby. At night, the mothers crawled into the cots with their children.
Palinka felt a sudden sadness. The boy looked so small, swallowed by the adult-sized cot. She didn’t want him to wake up alone.
On a whim, she got in the cot with him.
She tried to sleep but couldn’t. She listened to the sounds inside the sauna-like tent – coughing, the whimpering of a child in pain, nurses brushing past, doctors talking and the alarm set off by a little girl in the emergency room.
In the morning, the 3-year-old stirred. He rolled toward her, glanced at her, then quickly turned away. She felt that her side was wet. He had peed all over the cot.
She changed him. She gave him baths inside a plastic laundry tub. She rummaged through the donations flown in from Miami to find him fresh clothes and a play pen.
When she first tried to clip his toe nails, he pulled in his feet and curled them into little balls. Coaxing him in Creole, a Haitian nurse slowly got him to extend his feet.
The food at the hospital came in a styrofoam takeaway container. She placed the box in front of the 3-year-old. He opened it and threw one leg over it, as if to shield it from anyone who might try to steal his food.
He ate in famished gulps until he couldn’t eat anymore. Then he hid the box under a table. When she took him outside, he grabbed a fistful of dirt and stuffed it inside his mouth. The doctors determined that he had worms, most likely from eating food off the ground.
At lunchtime, the nurses placed the takeaway box on the floor of his play pen. Palinka returned to find him asleep in a pile of rice. When he lifted his face, chunks of rice were glued to his cheek.
One morning, as she lowered him into his play pen and turned to leave, he threw up his arms and screamed out, “Momma!”
At first the little boy only looked at his feet. She would tell him softly, “regarde moi” – “look at me.” He started to give her furtive glances. She took him into her tent, away from the clamor of the pediatric tent.
He started to talk to himself. Sometimes he sang. One of his favorite games was to blow on her stomach, making the sound of a motorboat.
She asked a Haitian translator to figure out his name. The translator got down on one knee to ask him. The child stared at his feet. He repeated the question. And then the child answered.
“Sonson,” he said.
She brought a different translator. And then a third one. Each time the answer was the same. On her Facebook page on Feb. 13, Palinka wrote: “Sonson is a good name.”
Two days later she posted: “Tamara Palinka wants to take Sonson home! will start the process tomorrow.”
In Alberta, Palinka’s mother Kate Millar wrote back: “Is Sonson a child you are hoping to adopt??? Am I going to be a grandmother???”
International adoptions by U.S. households have fallen from a high of around 23,000 in 2004 to roughly half that last year, according to U.S. State Department figures. Haiti is the latest of several former “donor” countries to put a freeze on such adoptions.
Vietnam and Guatemala have halted adoptions altogether. South Korea – one of the first countries from which orphans were sent – has revised its rules to make adoptions increasingly difficult.
“There is a sense in many many countries that to be a ‘sending’ country is an embarrassment,” says adoption lawyer Diane Kunz, executive director of the Center for Adoption Policy and an expert on adoptions from Haiti. “Their perspective is ‘Our patrimony is our children.’ It’s as if you are giving this away.”
By his second week at the hospital, Sonson was transformed. He sang and danced. At dinner, he beat a stick on the back of the styrofoam container like an instrument.
He begged for food. Other volunteers gave him candy and snacks. Some days Palinka would come to feed him and see he had already two empty styrofoam boxes in front of him. Several times he vomited on her. One night she took him to see a doctor at 2 a.m. because he was complaining of a stomach ache.
She taped a sign to the back of his shirt. “Please do not feed me,” it said. “My mommy does that.”
One time, she went to get him for his nap and couldn’t find him. A volunteer had walked off with him.
“I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ Don’t you ever ever walk off with him again.”
“I’ve made up my mind so don’t even try to stop me,” Millar wrote her daughter in an e-mail. “I’m coming down to see my grandson.”
The two slept with Sonson between them.
Millar saw her daughter transformed into a mother. It was in every gesture – from the soft way she spoke to him, to the constant attentiveness she showed him.
“In my case that is something that I grew into by giving birth myself to a child. She didn’t grow into it by being pregnant,” Millar says. “When I saw her, she was a mom – in every way she is a mom. This is her son. … I’m so proud of her.”
As Palinka spent more time with Sonson, her attention began to shift away from the hospital.
Then the order came from Miami. The rainy season was starting. The hospital needed to downsize.
None of the orphans had medical conditions that required them to stay. Palinka was tasked with contacting the government to transfer them to orphanages.
She clashed bitterly with the hospital’s management, according to several volunteers. She accused the hospital of trying to ‘unload’ the orphans. Hospital officials accused her of letting her feelings for Sonson blindside her. A spokeswoman for the hospital said it does not comment on personnel issues.
Within days, the orphans – including Sonson – were registered with the state’s child welfare agency.
When Palinka returned, hospital officials relinquished her of her duties. They said she was spending too much time with Sonson.
A 6-minute video shot on a co-worker’s Blackberry phone shows Palinka’s final moments with Sonson before he was taken away.
He is sitting on her lap in the backseat of an SUV. He pinches her lips together, like a fish. Then he leans forward and kisses her over and over again.
When the SUV pulled away, Palinka waved until the car had driven out of sight. Then she sobbed until she started dry heaving in the hospital’s parking lot.
Within a week she aged. Her eyes were hollows. Her face was taut. She carried his toy car in her pocket for comfort.
“I see her, and you don’t even want to ask what’s going on,” says Jen Jasilewicz, the hospital’s chief nursing officer. “It amazes me. You have someone who wants to give her love and all those beautiful things to a child, and she is not being allowed to.”
Haitian officials say they are trying to protect children from possible exploitation.
“International adoption should always be a last resort,” says former Deputy Gerandale Telusma, who headed a committee charged with drafting the country’s new adoption law. “We need to first make sure there is no other family willing to take the child … to make sure they don’t enter into some kind of nightmare.”
It is a position backed by the United Nations Children’s Fund, which helped create a database for unaccompanied children after the Haiti quake. The aim is to reunite children with their extended families, even if family members say they cannot care for the child.
Michel Forst, the United Nations’ independent expert on human rights in Haiti, says the adoption freeze is necessary.
“There were lots of people that were coming here and doing whatever the heck they wanted. So it needed to be put on hold so that we could make sure that these adoptions were being done in a legal manner,” Forst says.
“And yes, it’s hard. It’s hard for the well-meaning families that are waiting to adopt children. And it’s hard for the children that are being prevented from running into the arms of these families.”
Sonson was transferred to a modern orphanage in a village a 1 1/2 hour drive from downtown Port-au-Prince. Palinka spent her remaining weeks in Haiti trying to get visitation rights.
On her first visit, she was told to call a child welfare case worker at 8 a.m. Palinka says she called more than 20 times between 8 and noon and each time was told to call back “in 10 minutes.” She was then told to drive to the side of the highway leading to the village and wait.
She says she waited for more than two hours in the sweltering car before the case worker arrived. Jeanne Bernard Pierre, the head of the child welfare agency, declined to comment.
The woman took her to see Sonson. She didn’t recognize him.
His head had been shaven. He was sitting by himself on the floor. The other children rushed at her, screaming. “Where is he?” she asked.
“Don’t you recognize him? That’s him,” said the woman.
She crouched on her knees. “Sonson?” she said. He looked up and then away. She scooped him up in her arms. He held on tightly. He made no sound, until they tried to pull him away. And then he screamed.
In the month since they were separated she has seen him twice more. Each time she finds him diminished. “He looks smaller. He’s no longer making eye contact,” she said.
He cannot be declared an orphan for at least six months, to give his family a chance to reclaim him if they are alive. After that, he enters the bureaucratic labyrinth of Haiti’s adoption limbo.
Even before the earthquake, the waiting time for the roughly 300 Haitian children adopted each year into U.S. households was two to three years. So even if the government accepts Palinka’s application, 3-year-old Sonson will be waiting for about as long as he has been alive.
On her last supervised visit, Palinka was allotted 20 minutes with him. She arrived an hour early. She brought him his bike with the training wheels.
Through a translator she tried to explain what would happen next. “I’m going to go away for a long time, but I will come back for you,” she told him.
When the visit was up, she lifted him onto the bike. Engrossed, he pedaled away.
She quietly slipped out. She kept her bloodshot eyes on the ground as she walked briskly out of the gravel driveway, his toy car in her pocket.