Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Love and Loss in Adoption

I jumped over to Adrienne's blog and read this heartbreaking story of a Haitian adoption as reported by the Times Online. Read with tissues....

After a tortuous adoption process lasting five years, Rowena and Richard Pet finally knew that their long wait was over when they saw Arno toddle nervously towards them for the first time. To their delight, the little boy’s favourite possession was a distinctive blue and yellow fluffy toy that the couple had sent to the orphanage in Haiti almost two years earlier to start building a special bond between them. Mr Penguin was inscribed with a single word: “Love.”

Arno was shy at first but within 30 minutes of meeting his adoptive parents he reached for Rowena’s hand and took the Dutch couple on a tour of the orphanage in Port-au-Prince where he had spent most of his short life. He began to call them Mummy and Daddy.

Richard, 35, in an an e-mail to his best friend Chris Spaansen on January 11, described the couple’s intense emotions when that longed-for day at last arrived.

“We got to the orphanage feeling a bit strange. We went around a corner and immediately saw Arno walking towards us. He was OK until he was about half a metre away, but then he panicked. The woman from the orphanage helped out and half an hour later he took Rowena’s hand for the first time. I’m sorry but I can’t help crying at the moment as I type this. Arno has been showing us everything in the orphanage. He showed us an old car they have for the children to play on. He was holding a birthday card we sent for his second birthday.” Spaansen’s voice fades to a whisper as he recounts the events leading up to the earthquake that would end and devastate so many lives. “Richard and Rowena had a long dream of getting a baby. But it was just not possible. They tried for about eight years and you can understand that when you want something so badly, the dream becomes bigger and bigger, so they decided about five years ago to go for adoption.”

The official screening process was intense but Richard and Rowena, 34, passed with flying colours, thanks partly to warm testimonials from family and friends. The couple met while working for the Dutch bank DSB and settled three years ago in the tiny town of Winkel, in the north of the Netherlands, from where Rowena ran an online mail-order shirt company and Richard was setting up his own business as a media consultant after leaving the bank.

“It was very hard over those five years to come as far as they had come because it is so difficult to get an adoption, ” Spaansen says. “There are a lot of rules.”

The first two years of the adoption process were taken up with background checks, interviews and paperwork, but almost three years ago they were ready to be matched with baby Arno, then just two months old. It seemed that the couple’s prayers had been answered. And then another miracle: Rowena fell pregnant.

“It was unbelievable but after eight years they got pregnant — we had a big party but it was also tough because the adoption was under way,” Spaansen says. “We all spoke about it. It was just not possible that they would have kids of their own, but maybe because they were more relaxed about it because of Arno . . . who knows?” The period after the birth of Jim last August was also an especially nerve-racking time for Richard and Rowena, who decided to conceal their new arrival from the authorities in case it wrecked their hopes of adopting Arno, with whom they felt a strong bond and an unbreakable responsibility.

With everything in place, the couple gathered with their friends for a send-off party, leaving baby Jim with relatives in the Netherlands. “The evening before they left, we as friends drank and we had fun. But Richard and Rowena were very tense. They had lived five years for this moment,” Spaansen says.

Richard sent friends regular e-mail updates from Haiti. “Another few days and the family is complete,” he wrote on January 12, just a few hours before the earthquake struck. Tragically it was to be his last message home.

The couple had been staying at the Hotel Villa Therese, in the PĂ©tionville district of Port-au-Prince, a popular choice with many adoptive parents, but which collapsed in seconds when the powerful tremors hit Haiti. Rowena and Richard’s parents issued desperate appeals through the media for rescuers to try to find them.

AndrĂ© Frensch, Rowena’s father, speaking during those agonising days to a Dutch newspaper, said: “A few hours before the earthquake we had an e-mail. It said that the little boy was beginning to get used to them and that they were going to sleep.”

Her mother added: “No earthquake for 200 years and they are there for four days . . . it is just incomprehensible.”

Dutch TV cameras were on hand during the frantic search by an international rescue team with members from the Netherlands, Britain and Canada. “They showed the moment on television,” Spaansen says, recalling how close friends and family were gathered round the TV screen four days after the catastrophe.

Lying there amid the rubble was the unmistakable blue and yellow toy bird, Mr Penguin, marked with the word “Love”, that went everywhere with Arno. “That toy helped them to make their first contact with the little boy. It had a really special place in the family. It was a very emotional moment for all of us,” Spaansen says.

What the cameras did not show were the three bodies, found intertwined together, as if Rowena and Richard had tried to put protective arms around Arno as the masonry began to fall. The disaster cruelly destroyed the new family, creating its own orphan back in the Netherlands. Jim, just five months old, will be brought up by Rowena’s sister, who already has her own three-year-old boy.

“There are lots of orphans in Haiti because of the poor situation of the country. But what exactly the reason was for Arno, we don’t know,” says Spaansen, who has now helped to start a foundation to keep alive the memory of Rowena and Richard, one of two Dutch couples killed with their Haitian children in the disaster.

Even before the earthquake, there were 50,000 parentless youngsters living in orphanages in Haiti, according to Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency. A further 380,000 were officially classified as orphans because they had just one parent who was not able to look after them. The pace of international adoptions from Haiti had been increasing: the Ministry of Social Affairs processed 720 in 2003 ,which rose to 1,404 in 2006 — but clearly it remained a small percentage of the country’s orphans.

In the post-earthquake crisis thousands of children have been brought to orphanages because their families cannot provide them with food or shelter. The Haitian Government last week restricted international adoptions because of fears of people-trafficking amid controversy over the arrest of ten US missionaries taking a group of undocumented children to the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Jean-Max Bellerive, the Prime Minister of Haiti, has pledged to sign off personally on all children before they leave the country to ensure that all the necessary checks had been made. The UN advises that two years should elapse for family members to be traced before adoption is permitted.

“This foundation is for the orphans who have a poor standard of living before and which has got even worse now after the earthquake,” Spaansen says. “The money will go to Dutch companies who work locally with them already so we know exactly where it will be spent. It will go towards toys and playground equipment, to make their lives better.”

The foundation website declares: “We know that Richard and Rowena wanted to give their child Arno a wonderful future, but deep in their hearts they also had the greatest desire to help all the kids there. Because of what happened to them, there is nothing that we as friends could do other than to continue the mission.”

Far away from the chaos and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the remains of Rowena and Richard arrived back in the Netherlands last week and will be cremated in a private ceremony today. The body of Arno, who would have turned 3 last Friday, travelled back with his adoptive parents so that his ashes would always be with theirs.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Thanks for the warning about the tissues. I can't even see what I'm typing as I write this. What a heartbreaking story and a terrible tragedy among so many other horrors in Haiti.

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