The floor was shaking, the walls were crumbling and the babies at Ruuska Village Orphanage in Haiti were bouncing out of their cribs. Mandi McBride dived to shelter the screaming toddlers rolling across the ground, risking her life to keep them alive.
"I just knew we were all gone," said the Logan nurse, who has adopted two Haitian children and was on a humanitarian mission at the orphanage when a 7.0 earthquake hit Jan. 12. "I was praying as hard as I could. I've never been so close to death in my life."
It was a nightmare, she said — a nightmare that's still replaying over and over, not only in McBride's head, but in the imaginations of about a dozen Utah couples who are in the process of adopting children from Haitian orphanages.
Their orphans are homeless. They can't join their families in America because the Haitian government, worried about human trafficking, has stopped issuing humanitarian parole. And they are running out of food.
As horrific as the earthquake was, it wasn't the first twist of fate that's kept these children from their would-be American families. Many have been stuck in limbo for three, four and five years, waiting for adoption paperwork to be finalized. Kidnapping, hunger, sickness and death had already become a part of many hopeful parents' lives before the earthquake struck.
Falling in love
Peter Muelezaar, like most of Utah's soon-to-be-adoptive parents, didn't set out looking for a Haitian baby.
"I found my children," said the Heber businessman who is now in the process of adopting three orphans. "They just happen to be Haitian."
Since the earthquake, Ogden-based Wasatch International Adoptions hasn't taken a phone call that wasn't an inquiry about bringing home a Haitian baby, but, historically, Haiti hasn't been Utah parents' first choice.
Since Wasatch International Adoptions started working with the country in 2004, 18 percent of parents chose Haitian children. Despite recent crackdowns on international adoption in China and Guatemala, both countries have been consistently more popular with Utah parents.
Some parents who are adopting from Haiti describe their decision in spiritual terms.
"I just knew she was my daughter," said Angie Rasmussen, a Hyrum substance abuse counselor who has been trying to adopt a 10-year-old Haitian for four years.
She insists — as do most — that even though she's only seen Abigaelle seven times, that the two share a bond as strong as blood.
Waiting, waiting, waiting
Adopting a child from Haiti is, as Chareyl Moyes, Haiti's program manager at Wasatch International, puts it, "a battle of endurance."
"It's not hard, but it takes a really, really long time," she said.
First of all, there's paperwork to fill out and legal hoops to jump through.
Potential parents must have a social worker look over their house, undergo a psychological evaluation, prove their citizenship and provide the Haitian government with a bundle of bank statements.
Then, parents must deal with the Haitian government.
"It's a broken system in a lot of ways," Moyes said. "The central government isn't overseeing the adoption process like they need to, so none of the different departments agree on what needs to be done."
Lehi mother Lori Rosenlof was sent notice that if she wanted to adopt from Haiti she and her husband would have to travel to the country and stand before a judge to demonstrate that they "cared about the children," Rosenlof wrote in her blog Nov. 18 2009. New officials had been elected, and, "to prove they have power," they had changed policy — again.
The "judge," who conducted court in a back alley office, kept his records in a spiral notebook decorated with American underwear advertisements. The "proof" was $100 and a signature. Whether or not the money was ever delivered to the department holding Rosenlof's paperwork, she will never know.
"One of the frustrations with Haitian adoption is the chaos," she wrote after meeting with the judge. "There's no order, no rhyme, no reason. … It's the embodiment of insanity."
Documents bounce from desk to desk, Moyes said, and rules can change with little notice.
"A file might end up on a desk somewhere — nobody knows where it is — and just start gathering dust," Moyes said. "It's very frustrating."
In most cases, the orphanages are overcrowded and underfunded. Most are family run and don't get any government support. Children don't have regular access to nutritious food, and babies aren't taken to the hospital unless they are on the brink of death.
They know they cannot force the Haitian government to act more quickly. So, in a bid for some illusion of control over the situation, many have turned to humanitarian work in the country their children live in.
Rosenlof founded the nonprofit Hope For Little Angles of Haiti to keep her children's orphanage supplied with rice, a full-time nurse and occasional visits from a teacher.
Saving the babies
Soon after the rumble, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Haitian orphans who had already been matched with adoptive families would get humanitarian parole to allow their speedy evacuation. More than 100 orphans caught flights to their waiting families in France, Canada and the United States over the next few days.
Even after the Haitian government, worried about possible child trafficking, put a hold on humanitarian parole, Utah parents remain undaunted that they will soon see their children. Seventy two children destined mostly for Utah and Idaho are now camping out on a cement driveway, waiting for Haiti's president to approve their travel documents.
As Haitian government mix-ups go, this one has worked itself out like a "series of miracles" so far, Rosenlof said.
Miracle one: Moyes had the foresight to gather extensive documentation about the children and their adoptive families before departing the United States to round up the orphans. The photos and identification were enough to get at least half of the children approved for humanitarian parole before the Haitian government shut down the operation.
Miracle two: After the children missed their first flight out of the country because of government delays, parents were able to raise $8,600 to charter a new plane in just 36 hours.
Miracle three: Orphanage owners and relief organizations, like Utah Haiti Relief, which is headed up by St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson, have managed, amidst all of the chaos, to keep the children fed and taken care of.
Now, as far as Rosenlof's concerned, her children are just one final paperwork battle and a plane ride away from leaping at long last into her arms.
She'd like just one last favor from God: "Can that plane ride be Thursday please?"
Haiti orphans' future
Even if Rosenlof is cuddling her two children by the weekend, though, the battle for Haiti's orphans will be far from over.
Even before Haiti's infrastructure came tumbling down Jan. 12, more than 380,000 children lived in shelters, nursing or temporary homes. UNICEF now estimates more than 1 million children qualify as orphans.
Thousands of people, inspired by glimpses of the underprivileged children they have learned about through the media, want to be there for Haiti's orphans.
"Our Haiti program was doing OK," said Kathleen Kaiser, executive director of Wasatch International Adoptions. "But since the earthquake, interest has been overwhelming."
Kaiser said her agency has consistently raked in between 400 and 500 e-mails a day from couples interested in acquiring a little Haitian of their own.
"The media has brought the orphans into our living rooms," said Cheryl Smith, 49, of Salt Lake City, who has been looking into adopting a little Haitian. "They're telling us stories about little boys named 'Johnny' and little girls who need someone to love them. It's heart breaking, it's urgent and I want to help."
But no one will be bringing home an orphan — at least not now.
The Haitian government has shut down its international adoption program indefinitely. The country's government offices were destroyed in the earthquake, Kaiser said. There's no one to review the adoption paperwork.
Furthermore, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out last week in a State Department briefing, while the country is in shambles, it is difficult to discern which children are orphans and which have just been separated from their families.
"We have to be very careful not to exacerbate this difficult situation by removing children from Haiti who might have surviving family members," she said.
In the meantime, Kaiser begs those interested in adoption to "hang on."
"Right now, if you want to help the children of Haiti, send money," she said. "Send money, and send supplies because the babies are already running out of food."
Those who already parent (or will soon parent) Haitian children have already started mobilizing resources to rebuild the country's broken orphanages. Even as Rosenlof is biting her nails, counting the hours till her children come home, she and other parents are making plans to build a school and establish a scholarship fund for orphans. McBride and Rasmussen started shipping medical supplies to Haiti last week.
"We have friends that are like our family that are left in Haiti," Rasmussen said. "I cannot abandon them."
Utahns adopted 1,906 children from other countries from 1998 to 2009. The top six countries of origin:
Source: U.S. State Department
Contributing: Sara Lenz