Members Retrieve Haitian Orphans

Posted February 5, 2010 at 3:03pm

Of the many grim images broadcast in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti four weeks ago, Robert and Sarah Gammons-Reese found one particularly disturbing: the sight of their adoption attorney’s collapsed law office in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Somewhere beneath the rubble lay the recently completed paperwork for their son Isaac, a 4-year-old orphan who the couple had been waiting to adopt for more than three years and bring to Ferndale, Wash.

But after finally nearing the end of a protracted adoption process, the two found themselves on the brink of despair.

“At that moment, we thought we were done,” Sarah said. With no way of knowing whether Isaac was alive and his newly minted passport and visa destroyed in the wreckage, the situation seemed hopeless.

That is, until they called their local Congressman, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). In what quickly became a whirlwind chain of events, Larsen’s offices worked around the clock with a number of federal agencies and the U.S. Embassy in Haiti to help Robert and Sarah locate Isaac and bring him home.

The Gammons-Reeses are not alone; at least a handful of Congressmen from districts all over the country have proved instrumental in helping scores of families reunite with Haitian orphans who were already in the adoption process. Sarah said her family’s experience served as a reminder that “you have to use the people you elect — that’s why they’re there.”

Some tales are more harrowing than others, but taken together they paint a portrait of how Members work on behalf of their constituents during times of extreme tragedy.

After learning that Isaac was alive, Robert flew to Haiti hoping to complete the adoption process and bring his son home to safety.

He eventually arranged transport to Florida through a tiny four-seat missionary mail plane. But, because of an ominous weather forecast and the plane’s need to refuel in the Bahamas, Robert was only left with a one-hour window to obtain the Department of Homeland Security’s permission to leave Haiti with Isaac and send the approval to the airline, Agape Air — otherwise the plane would leave without them.

That’s where Larsen’s office came in.

“It was like jazz — a lot of improvisation,” Larsen said in an interview.

Larsen’s office immediately contacted the DHS, assembled the proper documents, received approval and then sent a personal letter from Larsen to Agape Air confirming verbal clearance from the DHS. A Larsen staffer then continued an all-night dialogue with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Sarasota, Fla., to ensure Isaac and Robert arrived safely.

On the ground, Robert completed the last of Isaac’s paperwork, making Isaac the first beneficiary of the “humanitarian parole” policy recently announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The policy allows orphaned Haitian children to enter the country for “urgent humanitarian reasons or other emergencies.”

In a different case, Larsen’s Everett, Wash., office served as the only conduit between Brett Schlenbaker — another adoptive father who flew to Haiti seeking the last two signatures necessary to bring his daughter and son, Djennika and Djouvensky, home — and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Because of Port-au-Prince’s defunct communications infrastructure, Schlenbaker would have made a blind six-mile trek to the nation’s capital were it not for his satellite phone and a Larsen staffer. The staffer, located in the Pacific time zone, stayed up all night relaying details between Schlenbaker and the embassy until he arrived and was able to obtain the remaining signatures.

Larsen said his offices have assisted a total of four families in their efforts to reunite with seven Haitian orphans, all of whom were already in the adoption process prior to the earthquake.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) is another Member who went to great lengths to help reunite adoptive families with Haitian orphans — in fact, he’s one of the only Congressmen who actually flew there.

On the day of the earthquake, Altmire’s office received a frantic call from a constituent who said she had two daughters who ran an orphanage in Haiti and needed help. The quake had rendered conditions in the orphanage unlivable, and concerns about looters desperate for food and water were beginning to mount.

As Altmire’s staff began mobilizing to coordinate with the State Department, the DHS and the U.S. Embassy, they learned there was a catch: The two women, Jamie and Ali McMutrie, refused to leave unless they could bring all 54 orphans with them.

Altmire quickly helped assemble a rescue team that included Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), a doctor, a federal judge and a representative from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who all flew to Haiti in a donated relief plane to negotiate the children’s release.

Upon arrival, “it turned into something that was much more intricate and involved than anything I could have ever imagined,” Altmire said in an interview.

Ultimately, it took a joint effort between the delegation from Pennsylvania, the State Department, National Security Council and Air Force to transport all 54 children to the U.S. Embassy and run them through the proper legal paperwork in an expedited way, Altmire said.

Other Congressmen who had a hand in reuniting Haitian orphans with adoptive families from their respective districts include Reps. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.).

Driehaus’ office aided constituents Chris and Lori Pramuk and their 6-year-old daughter, Sophie, and 1-year-old son, Henry David, by calling media contacts on the ground in Haiti and multiple nongovernmental organizations to determine whether the two children were alive and safe.

Much to the Pramuks’ relief, the children were located, and Driehaus’ office worked with the U.S. Embassy in Haiti to expedite their visa process by electronically transmitting the requisite documents to a lone embassy worker swamped with requests.

Cooper’s office initially concentrated on coordinating with the Red Cross and State Department to bring home 20 students from a local church group who were in Haiti. After their safe return, Cooper and his staffers shifted their efforts to advocating for humanitarian parole for orphans who had already been assigned families. Staffers sent letters to Senators, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In the end, Cooper’s office assisted in relocating six Haitian orphans to Knoxville, Tenn.

Sharon Rummery, a regional media manager with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said it’s not unusual for federal agencies to cooperate closely with Congressional offices advocating on behalf of constituents. “It’s important for us to give great service, and when specific cases are called to our attention, we give them an immediate review,” she said. “It’s part of our due diligence.”

As of Monday, the USCIS has allowed 600 Haitian orphans to join their families in the U.S., and an additional 350 orphans are soon expected to follow, Rummery said.