First of three-part series originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, December 14, 2008.
Story and photos by Andy Olsen
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Rebecca Haake walked into the room of the boy who would change her life and was almost knocked over by the smell of urine, the shouts of children and the tug of tiny hands clutching at her skirt.
She glanced at Kerwin and the others, faces fixed in perpetual smiles or stares, disabled bodies unwelcome most places in their country outside the dimly lit orphanage.
The 5-year-old with crooked legs was deaf and had cerebral palsy. He slept in one of the wooden cribs lining the walls – just another sad story in an unending chain of tragedies she was seeing on her first visit to Haiti in April 2006.
Rebecca had no idea that the boy would someday be her son.
She could not have known that her journey to motherhood was beginning at that moment, at the start of a trip she had taken with friends who were volunteering to help in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Rebecca, then 25, and her husband, Mike, 26, of Nicholasville, had dreamed of adopting a child. But they could not have foreseen the 18 months of their lives the quest would demand, the savings it would devour, or the infinite patience required to wait for paperwork to circle its way through the offices of one of the world’s most corrupt and unstable governments.
Foreign adoptions are fraught with complications, and the vagaries of adopting from Haiti are notorious among those who have tried.
It would be the most difficult journey of their lives.
The first step: approval
Mike and Rebecca met as students at the University of Kentucky in 2000. Mike was a quiet, lanky math student. Rebecca was a tall blonde who had played basketball in college and could talk a blue streak.
They were married in the spring of 2002, and by the spring of 2006, Mike had settled into a job teaching math at Lexington Christian Academy and coaching girls’ softball. Rebecca was a speech therapist.
Rebecca had worked with children in foster care and the couple was talking about fostering to adopt. An international adoption, however, was as foreign a concept as Haiti until Rebecca went there. She spent very little time with Kerwin during her first visit to Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, the Frankfort, Kentucky-based organization that ran the orphanage. She has only a few pictures of him tossing a ball in his wheelchair, of him trying on her sunglasses and laughing.
When Rebecca flew back to her tidy, white two-story house in Nicholasville, “I immediately knew that I was going to come back,” she said.
A few weeks after her trip, Rebecca could not get Kerwin out of her head. Once she even woke up in the middle of the night, thinking maybe God was preparing her to be Kerwin’s mom.
Despite his deafness and crippled legs, he was strikingly intelligent and engaged. He was smart and knew some sign language.
What if the only thing holding him back was living in a crowded orphanage in Haiti? What if his legs could be fixed and he could learn to walk? What if he could hear a little and learn to talk?
Rebecca knew all too well that the mission had a policy of not allowing its orphans to be adopted. But she was preparing her arguments.
Mike warmed slowly to the idea. He trusted Rebecca’s judgment when it came to disabled children. They pieced together a small packet making their case and mailed it to the mission’s campus director, Jody Castillo, a straight-talking missionary who navigates Haiti’s chaos with a hot-pink laptop and matching iPhone.
The mission’s response came on a Saturday afternoon about two weeks later, in a brief e-mail from Castillo. Mike called Rebecca’s cell phone and read it aloud: “The good news is, we’ve approved you to adopt. Still a lot for you to do.”
Rebecca was pressing the phone to her ear and crying, standing next to shelves of women’s underwear in the middle of Wal-Mart.
Piles of paperwork
The next few months were a whirlwind of paperwork and visits to drab government offices. Preparing the stack of documents necessary to begin the adoption process became a part-time job for Rebecca.
A manila folder as thick as a man’s wrist, the dossier contained notarized evidence that they were healthy, honest, tax-paying, income-earning homeowners with a clean record and a dog that didn’t bite.
Every document was signed by the Secretary of State’s office for the benefit of American bureaucrats and translated into French for their Haitian counterparts.
And “there’s a story for everything,” Rebecca said.
Like the weekend they drove more than 1,600 miles through the night from Lexington, to South Carolina, to Chicago and back to visit a Haitian consulate and ship documents overnight to beat a filing deadline that turned out not to exist.
They took a quick trip to Haiti in October of 2006. It was Mike’s first visit to the country and his first time meeting Kerwin. Their enthusiasm was dulled by a sense that perhaps they were in over their heads. Rebecca was crying and fighting doubts, and Mike was simply overwhelmed.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” Mike said. “But it was hard to know until you actually saw him.”
They spent a week with Kerwin and left determined that the next time they saw him would be to bring him home.
The Haakes enlisted the assistance of an adoption agent in Haiti, an American named Barbara Walker, who gave them a to-do list and promised to facilitate everything with the Haitian government.
All foreign adoptions require both U.S. and foreign government approval. The Haakes decided to go it alone in America, hiring an attorney, but otherwise handling paperwork on their own. Their humor took on a touch of cynicism. “How could you write down what you’re supposed to do for a Haitian adoption?” Rebecca said. “It changes every five days.”
It can also drag on. The adoption process in Haiti frequently lasts more than two years. In China, by comparison, it can typically take two and a half years; and in Ethiopia, from six months to two years, according to State Department figures. In general, special-needs children take less time to adopt than healthy babies.
What was most unusual about Kerwin’s adoption, however, was Mike and Rebecca’s resolve to see it through in person. Parents adopting from Haiti seldom travel to the country to pick up their child until the process is complete, if they go there at all.
In the summer of 2007, the Haakes went to Haiti to stay with Kerwin, with no plans other than to sit and wait for his paperwork to go through. Rebecca took off from work indefinitely and Mike was on summer vacation.
On June 4, they stared out the windows of a twin-engine plane as it descended on a short gravel airstrip in the remote region of Haiti that is home to the mission and the orphanage.
Six miles away, a boy with crooked legs was waiting, a boy they were already calling their son.
‘A limp little guy’
There is nothing documenting how Kerwin (then named Kewins Esperance) arrived at the mission in the summer of 2003. But the consensus is the 2-year-old was as good as dead the day he came through the gates in his aunt’s arms. He weighed eight pounds.
Community members say his aunt found him alone in a dark room at his family’s home, a bare two-room apartment downtown in the small coastal city of Saint-Louis du Nord. He was sick and malnourished, his skin covered in open sores and his hair graying.
The story was that Kerwin’s parents had left town and gone south to the capital, Port-au-Prince, a two-day round trip. His birth parents are reluctant to talk about the details, but do not deny them. A striking young couple with no work in a country with few opportunities, they only said they had nothing to offer a handicapped boy.
“He was very sick,” said his mother, Eveline Esperance, who was 24 when she had Kerwin. “It’s difficult for kids like that to go to school. Even impossible.”
In fact, it is rare for any disabled child to live long in a country where many healthy people can barely feed themselves and where at least one child in most families dies before kindergarten.
A few blocks from Eveline’s apartment, a mother trying to raise her 10-year-old autistic son would leave him naked and chained to the front door to keep him from running off.
“In Haiti, no one knows how to take care of special-needs children. What you do is you let them die,” said Janeil Owen, the mission’s executive director.
A few lucky ones make it into orphanages like the mission’s, where the children get wheelchairs and physical therapy.
Kerwin’s aunt carried him up a hill to the mission that overlooks Saint-Louis du Nord. The mission is a walled compound with schools, food programs and a clinic, where Kerwin had been born two years earlier.
“He looked like he could die any second,” said Becca Jump, a missionary from Lexington who was there when Kerwin arrived. “He was just a limp little guy.”
Castillo, the campus director, accepted him into the special-needs orphanage. He was so unsightly the Haitian staff members were afraid to touch him, suspicious he was cursed by voodoo. “We thought we were going to have to bury him,” said Tarzie Time, the director of the orphanage staff.
The orphanage attached to the mission is the Miriam Center, named after the daughter of a donor who funded it. But Heaven’s Waiting Room is the melancholy nickname by which it is also known. It houses about a dozen children, most with a form of cerebral palsy or autism. Haitian women mother them during the day and sleep next to them at night.
For weeks, Kerwin lay alone in a crib, quiet and unresponsive amid a swirl of spastic and shouting children.
Visiting Americans took turns rocking him, forcing him to eat and rubbing lotion on his broken skin. In a month he had gained a little weight. He smiled for the first time, and his skin healed.
By the time the Haakes arrived four years later to wait out his adoption, in the summer of 2007, Kerwin was the darling of the orphanage. When the ladies needed help folding clothes, cleaning the bathroom or drying off one of the other children after a bath, they called on him.
His legs were turned inward, a condition known technically as spastic diplegia. He could not walk without clinging to something. And he was deaf, or at least extremely hard of hearing.
But unlike the other children in the orphanage, who could not feed themselves or do much without help, Kerwin was as intelligent and self-sufficient as one could expect a 6-year-old to be.
“Kerwin was everybody’s friend,” said Time.
When the mission granted Mike and Rebecca’s request to adopt Kerwin, it ripped the social fabric of the little orphanage. The day Castillo made the announcement, the workers cried.
They never fully made peace with the idea until the day Mike and Rebecca arrived at the mission that summer to claim their new son. When Rebecca walked through the orphanage door that day, Kerwin was ecstatic. As they headed out together, Kerwin recognized Mike coming toward him from photographs; he fumbled toward him and grabbed him.
It was a joyful beginning to what would be the longest months of their lives.
Cookies made of dirt
The early days with Kerwin were colored by the euphoria of finally being united, an emotion that overshadowed irritations like waking up in sweat-soaked sheets and falling asleep with buzzing mosquitoes.
They passed the time playing board games and baseball and watching Toy Story over and over on a laptop. They worked on sign language.
Once a week, Eveline came to watch Mike and Rebecca play with Kerwin. She spoke no English and they spoke no Creole. She would sit quietly, sizing them up, she later said. Mostly she was happy for Kerwin – she cried when she told the mission she would relinquish her parental rights.
“Tears of joy,” Castillo said.
The Haakes and Kerwin slept in a small room tucked into a corner of the mission compound. At bedtime, they signed through a picture book Rebecca and her sister had drawn to explain where Kerwin was going after he left Haiti.
Kerwin learned to pray with his hands, thanking God for mom and dad and asking for help to get them home soon. But by the end of June, the excitement was fading.
Walker, their adoption liaison, was out of the country for medical reasons until July, and their paperwork stalled. Mike battled a fever one night. Rebecca was coping with a skin infection that covered her hands in sores so painful she cried.
And Kerwin was testing their authority, crying over little things like not being allowed to wear someone else’s hat.
“We both have kind of hit a wall and feel like we’re ready to be back in America, which will not happen any time soon,” Rebecca wrote in a blog for family and friends.
There were bright spots, to be sure, things that mothers cherish, such as a first haircut and a first encounter with bath toys, which Kerwin thought he was supposed to wash.
But the Haakes were starting to raise a child against a backdrop of poverty so cruel that hungry women and children eat cookies made of dirt because they are cheaper than rice. Few things bothered Rebecca more than Kerwin’s habit of playing with trash and rocks, putting them in his mouth like a Haitian child on the street. She scolded him for it often.
It was an early victory when she spotted Kerwin playing with a dirty napkin and gave him a dirty look. He stopped cold and signed the word trash to her.
“It still doesn’t keep him from examining the trash before he throws it away,” she said.
The next step: consent
The Haakes stayed at the mission for a month, leaving the day before Independence Day. They had an appointment with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service office in Port-au-Prince. It was a critical interview with Kerwin’s birth parents to confirm their willingness to give up their son.
Without that consent, there could be no adoption.
The Haakes woke up before dawn and rode to the local airport, then flew with Kerwin’s birth parents to Port-au-Prince. There, they stayed in a hotel where they had air conditioning for the first time in ages. On Independence Day, they swam in the hotel’s pool.
Their spirits were lifting already. “I feel like just being here we are going to accomplish more,” Rebecca said.
Yet there was the lingering fear that something could go wrong. The next morning at the immigration office, they stared at the drab tile walls and waited for their appointment, where the birth parents showed no sign of fighting to stop the adoption.
Only time and a handful of signatures now stood between them and bringing home their son. They swam in the hotel pool again that evening, wondering if they might even be home soon.
But this was Haiti, and it was not so simple.