- Associated Press - Monday, June 21, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | 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 earthquake, 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, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania Democrat, 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,” said Miriam Frederick, founder of the New Life Children’s Home orphanage.

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,” said adoption lawyer Diane Kunz, executive director of the Center for Adoption Policy and a specialist on adoptions from Haiti. “Their perspective is ‘Our patrimony is our children.’ It’s as if you are giving this away.”

Haitian officials say they are trying to protect children from possible exploitation.

“International adoption should always be a last resort,” said 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 U.N. 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 specialist on human rights in Haiti, said 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,” Mr. Forst said.

“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,” he said.

Sonson was transferred to a modern orphanage in a village an 1½ hour drive from downtown Port-au-Prince. Ms. 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. Ms. Palinka said 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 said she waited for more than two hours in the sweltering car before the caseworker 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 Ms. Palinka’s application, 3-year-old Sonson will be waiting for about as long as he has been alive.