A search for family in Haiti raises questions about adoption
Nov. 27, 2015
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — As Mariette Williams waited for her flight from South Florida to Haiti, she paced the departure lounge, folding and re-folding her ticket and clutching the handle of a bag sagging with gifts. She was excited but terrified: For the first time in nearly 30 years, she was about to see her mother.
Colas Bazile Etienne was a shadow at the very edge of her daughter's memories, staying out of focus no matter how hard Mariette tried. She knew her mother was a desperately poor Haitian woman who had given her up for adoption, but why? Because she had too many children? Because she wanted to give Mariette a better life? Because she had hoped for exactly this, that her daughter would one day come back to help the family?
All Mariette remembered of her childhood was leaving it, the flight she was about to do now but in reverse. She had looked at the clouds out of the plane window and thrown up on her dress. She knew she shouldn't expect too much from this reunion, but she couldn't help it.
"Outside of my wedding and the birth of my children," she said over the noise of the airport, "this is probably one of the biggest days of my life."
Mariette is an English teacher at a private school who exudes the quiet authority of someone used to keeping a classroom of kids in line. She lives a middle-class American life in a condo in Boca Raton, a South Florida suburb of broad streets and manicured grass that couldn't be more different from Haiti. At 32, she has a husband, Terrence Williams, and two young children, Melia and Jaden.
Yet the itch to find her birth family has always gnawed at her, especially leading up to Mother's Day every year.
"I was celebrating the mother I had, but I was pushing away feelings of hurt and anger for the mother I lost," she wrote on a blog for fellow adoptees. "And so Mother's Day would come, and I would grin and bear it. A week would pass, then a month, and the sharp pain became a dull ache for the rest of the year."
Like Mariette, thousands of Haitian children in recent decades have gone to live with families in Europe, Canada and the United States. She tried years earlier to find her birth parents, but the orphanage listed in her adoption papers no longer existed. Her family name, "Etienne," is common in Haiti. And she knew of a town, Pestel, but had no online records to search.
For Mariette, as for many other adoptees, it was social media that opened up new possibilities. One day, she stumbled upon a Facebook page for Pestel. With the help of a translator, she posted a message online in Haitian Creole.
"My name is Mariette," she wrote. "I'm looking for my family."
Two weeks later, she got the contact number of someone who knew her parents. Her heart raced. At long last, this could be what she was waiting for.
Through a friend who spoke Haitian Creole, she found out that she had four sisters and two brothers in Haiti. Her mother was alive, but her father, Berlisse, had passed away about a year earlier.
She cried for the father she had never met. She also realized she was running out of time: Colas would soon be turning 70, old in a country where women have a life expectancy of 65.
Soon she was talking to Junette, a 45-year-old sister who was overjoyed to hear from her. In the back-and-forth, Mariette heard a name: Rose-Marie Platel, the orphanage owner listed in the adoption papers. At the mention of the name, she got goosebumps.
What Junette said next shook up everything Mariette believed about who she was and where she came from. Rose-Marie had been her godmother, her sister said, and had taken her to the capital, Port-au-Prince, for treatment when she got sick. But one day, when the family went to visit, both Rose-Marie and Mariette were gone.
Mariette's mother had never given her up for adoption after all. Junette asked: "Do you know your family has been looking for you for 30 years?"
It took two weeks to arrange a call with her mother, who did not have a phone and lived far from the capital.
Mariette's heart was pounding. The conversation through a translator was slow and at times awkward. But the voice was familiar -- like Junette's, only higher and softer.
Colas repeated the same story and said she had prayed, every day, to see her daughter again.
Junette promised to email Mariette a photo of her mother right after the call. Mariette stared at her screen saver, waiting.
Then it came.
"I had no words," Mariette later wrote. "I was by myself in front of the computer, and I just stared at the picture. I must have stared at it for a full five minutes before moving. And then I grabbed every single picture I had of myself on my computer and started comparing them."
She finally called her husband in and asked him, do we look alike?
He confirmed it with one look.
Now Mariette was unsettled. What had happened with her family? How could she not have known?
And what did her adoptive parents know?
Mariette was adopted in October 1986, at a time when adoption in Haiti was barely regulated. Most of the children in Haitian orphanages had at least one living parent, and the concept of signing away rights to see children was foreign, and still is.
"Even if mothers agreed to an adoption, they did not agree to a full adoption," said Mia Dambach, a children's rights specialist at the International Social Service in Geneva. "They often thought these children would go to America but that they would come back, that the child would always be part of their family."
Mariette's adoptive parents were Sandra and Albert Knopf, at the time empty-nesters in their 40s with three grown sons. Sandra said she felt God's call to adopt.
"I believed that I was doing it for the Lord," she said. "I was not doing it for the children and I was not doing it for me."
The couple lived in Langley, outside Vancouver, where Albert managed a plant that made polystyrene plates and Sandra stayed home. They were considered too old to adopt from Korea. So they found a man named Henry Wiebe who could arrange an adoption from Haiti for $3,500 per child, or $6,000 for two.
He came by with photos of older children, but Sandra only wanted girls under 2.
He called the next day. He had found them. She was going to call them Christa Gail and Jennifer Lynne, but they already had names: Mariette and Patricia.
Sandra arrived in Haiti with Wiebe at a tense time when the country had recently shaken off the rule of the infamous Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. She spoke neither Haitian Creole nor French, the two languages of Haiti. She had never seen such poverty before, and was overwhelmed.
They went straight to the orphanage run by Platel, the Christian Rescue Ministry for Children Home. The girls were infected with parasites, had runny eyes and seemed weak from malnutrition. Mariette was scratching at red bite marks that covered her body, and Sandra could tell she was older than the 17 months the adoption papers claimed. It was only much later that they found out she was nearly 3 ½.
Sandra never met the Haitian lawyer who processed the papers, or went to the hearing where the judge approved the adoption. Platel handled all that while Sandra got visas. It took a month.
As the plane took off from Port-au-Prince, she felt overwhelming relief.
"Circling the airport, I just looked down and thought, 'God, I never want to see this place again.'"
She ended up going back, 13 more times, for Christian relief work and to adopt three more children.
Mariette attended a private Christian school, studied the Bible and went to church every Sunday. She grew up with the idea that she should be grateful for her adoption. If she argued with Sandra, church friends would remind her of how much she owed her adoptive parents.
Now, suddenly, she started to wonder. She confronted Sandra over the phone.
To her dismay, her adoptive mother didn't seem surprised. Yes, she conceded, there had been red flags about the adoption. The fact that Mariette's age was off, the way the birth and other documents weren't available at first and then suddenly appeared, at night, some filled out by hand.
Four days later, Sandra gave her side in a letter to Mariette. Sandra noted that her adopted daughter could have ended up with some other family, or might not have survived in Haiti at all. She said she had always prayed Mariette would return to her country to meet her family. "I feel we have all been victims of deception, but I also believe God is ultimately in charge," she wrote.
For almost two months afterward, Mariette didn't speak to Sandra.
She was furious.
Now the trip to Haiti was about even more than meeting her mother. It was about walking into the different life she could have had, seeing the different person she might have been.
"I gained an education, I was able to attend private school, I'm a college graduate, I have my master's degree, I am a teacher. I have two beautiful children. I have a husband," she said. "And I lost my family. So, if you were to ask anybody today, would you trade your family in for a college education, they would probably say no.
"I never had that choice, but that's what I did."
She decided to go to Haiti to celebrate her mother's 70th birthday. Sandra gave her a necklace and earrings as gifts for Colas.
Mariette seethed. She left them behind.
It was bright and hot when she arrived in Port-au-Prince, just before noon. She had worn a white dress, thinking it made her look more Haitian. The Customs officials waved her toward a checkpoint for citizens.
She was surprised, and a little annoyed, that her Haitian relatives weren't at the airport. After a half-hour drive through the dusty streets, she arrived at the guest house where she had booked rooms for her family for the week. They weren't there either.
Her adoptive parents had always raised her to be 10 minutes early to everything. "I'm not sure I like Haitian time," she said.
But then her mother and two sisters arrived at the steel gate. Colas climbed slowly out of an SUV. She paused and stared at her daughter's face, so like her own. Then a smile spread over her thin features.
As they embraced, the frail older woman disappeared into the arms of Mariette, a head taller, with the athletic build of the college volleyball player she once was. The first words she said to her mother were, "You're so little!"
Colas leaned back, cradled her daughter's face to study it. It was too soon to let go, so they didn't. They walked arm-and-arm into the guest house, the rest of the family trailing behind.
They chatted straight through lunch with a translator. The next time you come, Colas told Mariette, you must bring your family, let me babysit the kids. "They will stay with grandma," she laughed. "They can stay the whole week."
Colas slid her chair closer to her daughter, so their shoulders touched. She reached out, and stroked Mariette's braided hair.
Mariette bit by bit gathered her mother's story, how she had 10 children, seven of them still alive, and earned money from selling vegetables. She heard that her father was tall, like Mariette, and had three children by other women. Colas raised them all. "My father was a rolling stone, apparently," she said.
About a half hour later, the conversation took a serious turn.
"Do you remember your godmother, Rose-Marie?" Colas asked.
She told Mariette how Rose-Marie, an assistant to a Haitian pastor who worked in the village, had offered to take her into her home in Port-au-Prince. Mariette was sick and the family was struggling, so Colas said yes. She said she had visited Mariette.
Then one day she went to the orphanage, and Mariette was gone.
"So, you never wanted me to be adopted?" Mariette pressed her. No, her mother said, she never agreed to her child going away.
What did she do next, Mariette asked. "I prayed," her mother replied. "I didn't know what to do. I felt sick."
Over the coming days, Mariette could get little more from her mother. She cursed herself for not learning Creole.
The gap between mother and daughter only widened the next day, when she traveled to the family home in the countryside, Colas in the blouse, skirt and new shoes her daughter had given her.
It took a day. And when Mariette got there, she was shocked.
The house was made of chipped cinderblock, with a roof of tree limbs topped with steel and a hard-packed dirt floor. There was no electricity, no running water. A cluster of plantain leaves out back served as the latrine, shared with several neighbors.
The nearest drinking water was a half-hour walk away, and the family washed with rain that ran off the roof into a plastic drum. A tall, faded pink sheet of plywood passed for a front door, which could be picked up and set back. The only windows were spaces in the concrete filled with old clothes for privacy.
Mariette walked inside with Colas, not taking off her sunglasses. She exited almost immediately.
"My initial reaction was, holy crap, I have to get out of here," she said later. "It's not like I haven't seen poverty in Haiti before, but it was so personal. It's my mom."
She had planned to spend the night at the house. Instead, she traveled two more hours to the one hotel in Pestel.
The next day, Junette said she would like to either move their mother to the capital or fix up her home, where two or three of her children and their families stay at any given time. The implication was clear: Mariette would pay.
Her brothers walked through the home with two barefoot contractors. Mariette ended up with a rough estimate of around $5,000 — far more than she could afford.
Her family saw her as the rich American relative. Her youngest sister and a niece hinted that they could go to nursing school, if they could only come up with the tuition. Colas wanted to prepare a meal, but didn't have money to buy a chicken. Mariette paid.
The neighbors flocked to the house to see the visitor. Some villagers from Deron claimed to have put children in the same orphanage as Mariette's, hoping for adoption. They praised Platel for helping the community, and one man said he was disappointed his child wasn't chosen for a life abroad.
"People are told these kids will have a better life and one day may come back," said Ilmer Resil'homme, a pastor. "Some of them understand. Some don't."
Back in Port-au-Prince, on her final night in Haiti, Mariette brought the family for dinner at the guest house. Junette was there with her daughter. Her brother Feni came, as did her sister Aliette, with her five children. Mariette barely ate as they all talked. They wrote out a family tree that included Mariette and her kids.
Toward the end of the night, Mariette was yawning. They hugged each other, and then her family began singing hymns in Creole. Mariette had no idea what they were singing, but she recorded it on her phone. It felt like Thanksgiving.
She left Haiti with a passport photo of her father, a gift from Colas. It was the only photo her mother had of Berlisse.
The details of Mariette's adoption remain a mystery. Wiebe, the Canadian facilitator, can't be located. Sandra lost touch with him and believes he died five years ago. It is unclear how much he knew.
A woman by the name of Rose-Marie Platel lives in a small apartment in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, where many Haitians have settled. She says she used to live on the same street where the orphanage was located. Her friends back in Haiti and Sandra insist from photos that it's the same woman.
But this woman says she knows nothing about orphans, and was too busy raising her own children. She dismisses a visitor with a brusque wave.
Adoptions in Haiti are now much more regulated. Birth parents can give up parental rights only after appearing before a court official, and attempts are made to keep the family together. The government matches children with adoptive parents, so that they can no longer choose kids directly from an orphanage, as Sandra did.
Sandra's acknowledgement of doubts about the adoption angered Mariette for a time, but she has tried to let it go.
"I still think it's messed up, but I'm no longer bitter," she said.
She has stayed in close touch with her new yet old Haitian family, and her brother told her Colas now sleeps with her daughter's photo under her pillow. Mariette is trying to come up with money for them while putting her kids through school and buying a house. She plans to run a half-marathon in Miami to raise funds and visit Haiti with her husband and children.
She may not know everything about her adoption, but she knows enough.
"Every single day for my entire life I have always thought of my mom," she said. "When I wake up now I have a face to put to the name."
Ben Fox on Twitter: @benfoxatap