December 4, 2020

Amy Coney Barrett Raised Her Haitian Adoptions. Other Families and Children Were Listening.

When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, a teenager named John Peter was playing basketball in the yard outside the small orphanage where he lived. He felt the earth bounce below him. He heard screams and watched a mushroom cloud of dust rising over the walls.

Two weeks later, he and 18 other children from the orphanage boarded a charter plane in the middle of the night as part of an American humanitarian effort. They landed in Sanford, Fla., to start new lives, in a new country, with new families.

“I saw the disaster and death all around. Dead moms, holding their dead kids,” John Peter Schlecht, now 23 and known as “JP,” said from St. Cloud, Minn., where he works three jobs. “I got out of there, but all those people were left. They didn’t get the chance I got.”

Since then, the children have headed in all directions. Some are studying in high school or college, or making a living of their own. Others have struggled with problems brought on by the early hardship in their lives, profound culture shock and the inability of their new parents to handle the challenges. Some were institutionalized or sent into foster care.

And in perhaps the most unlikely development, one boy and his older adopted Haitian sister ended up in the Rose Garden last month, introduced to the world by President Trump as two of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s seven children.

“She opened her home and her heart, and adopted two beautiful children from Haiti,” he said, introducing Judge Barrett as his nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

The orphanage, A New Arrival, was typical of many in Haiti. Food was in short supply, and many children weren’t literal orphans — their parents simply couldn’t afford to care for them.

Like most, it was basic, operating out of a four-bedroom house in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, and had up to 40 children at a time, the former director, Rock Cayo, said in an interview. They looked forward to a better life with new families.

“That was the dream — to come to America,” said Jennifer Downard, 21, a business student and nursing assistant in Colorado who was adopted by a family in Washington state in 2008. “I was going to drink water, get food on the table, I would not be scared at night.”

Judge Barrett’s son, also named John Peter and then about 3 years old, was on that flight out of Haiti following the earthquake. He and his sister, Vivian, who was adopted from the same orphanage more than five years earlier, form a key part of the Barretts’ family story.

Judge Barrett has talked about their adoptions regularly in public speeches. She was inspired to adopt, she once explained, because there are so many children in need.”

Just as everything with her nomination, the adoptions have been hard to totally separate from the politics of the moment.

Some critics have noted the irony of a president who has worked to close the United States to disaster refugees and once referred to Haiti with an expletive lauding the Barretts’ adoptions.And the ongoing debate over international adoption has played out as well. Advocates hope the Barretts’ story will encourage other prospective parents to come forward. Detractors have criticized as “white saviorism” the judge’s public accounts of her children’s dire situations before they left Haiti.

A small group of families who adopted children from the same orphanage, some at the very same time, are asking more intimate questions.

“I’d be really interested to hear how the kids are,” said Cara Leadingham, a mother of 11 from Illinois who remembers holding “Little” John Peter during many visits to the orphanage while waiting for the adoption of her daughter to be finalized. Though she doesn’t agree with Judge Barrett’s political positions, nor with the timing of her nomination, she’d love to hear what the past decade has been like for the family.

“There are success stories and equally as many challenging stories,” said Ms. Leadingham.

Inspired to adopt by a couple they met in their marriage preparation course, Judge Barrett has said they chose Haiti because of its overwhelming poverty and proximity to the United States, so “we could go as a family and be involved in Haiti as the children got older.”

ImageSupporters and opponents of Judge Amy Coney Barrett rallied outside of the Supreme Court. 
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Neither the Barretts nor the White House would comment for this story. But in speeches, Judge Barrett and her husband, Jesse, have offered bleak glimpses of the orphanage.

While they were visiting Haiti in 2004, a child at the orphanage died, Mr. Barrett said in a speech about his wife at her investiture as a federal circuit judge in 2018. They expected their daughter Vivian to perish too — at 14 months, she “was wearing size 0 to 3 month old clothing because she was so malnourished,” Judge Barrett said in a public interview at the Notre Dame Club in Washington D.C. in 2019. Last week, while introducing her daughter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, she remarked that “we were told she would never talk or walk normally.”

“Now, she dead lifts as much as the male athletes in our gym and, I assure you, she has no trouble talking,” she said.

In 2019, Judge Barrett called the orphanage “wonderful” and said the nannies there “loved the children immensely.”

Three adoptees who talked to The New York Times remembered the place with mostly hard feelings.

“If I was to put it in one word, it’s jail,” said Libien Becker, a 20-year-old business and carpentry student at Montana Technical University in Butte, who was adopted by a Montana family after the earthquake.

Teachers came to the orphanage to give classes on basic literacy and math, and often the children played basketball in the courtyard. But they also recalled stretches of hunger and corporal punishment — which although outlawed in Haiti, is a common experience for 80 percent of the country’s children, according to Haiti’s 2016-17 national survey.

Credit…Cara Leadingham

Mr. Cayo did not respond to the allegations of poor treatment at the orphanage, which has since been transformed into a school for poor children in the area.

Many American parents who adopted from there said they’d been promised the process would take a year or so. But they described painfully waiting years because of Haitian bureaucracy and problems with the American agency, which faced lawsuits from at least two sets of parents. In both cases, the families reached legal agreements without going to trial.

In one case, Patrick Eibs and his wife at the time claimed the agency and its director Lorraine A. Jones, “misrepresented the legal stages of the adoption proceedings, misrepresented the time the adoptions would take to proceed, misrepresented the defendants’ competence, forced the plaintiffs to pay for expenses in excess and beyond that provided by the parties’ written agreement and charged unreasonable fees for the services provided.”

A New Arrival Inc. was decertified in 2017 by an accreditation agency used by the U.S. State Department. That same year, it ceased operations, according to tax records.

The Barretts confronted their own problems adopting John Peter. During the 2019 interview, Judge Barrett said they’d been in the process when “paperwork things had just gone south.” They got a call from the adoption agency in 2009, delivering the difficult news that it wouldn’t happen, she said.

“Mentally and emotionally, we had closed that door,” she said.

A month later, on Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying large swaths of Port-au-Prince.

Six days later, the U.S. government announced it would lift visa requirements for orphans already in the process of adoption, as part of its disaster-relief efforts. The humanitarian parole program brought about 1,150 children from Haiti to the United States over the next few months — more than were adopted by American families in the previous three years — and was later criticized for insufficiently screening some children and their would-be parents in the rush. But, the government employees who oversaw it and many adopting parents considered it life-saving.

The Barretts got another call from the adoption agency, this one bearing good news: John Peter, could become part of the program.

“Will you still take him?’ Judge Barrett recalled someone from the agency asking. “We said, ‘Of course.’”

The orphanage had been remarkably untouched by the earthquake. But the children were sleeping in a tent fashioned from bedsheets and blankets in the courtyard, for fear of aftershocks, and their American parents spent sleepless nights worrying about their security.

Credit…Jacob Bissaillon

One of the parents, Jacob Bissaillon, jumped on a plane to the Dominican Republic and drove across the border into Haiti with the orphanage director, Mr. Cayo. Together, they spent a week recreating the dossiers of adopting parents that were buried in the rubble of government buildings — printing documents, photos and receipts to take to the American embassy in hopes of enrolling the children in the new program.

“Every single day, it would change — which kids were allowed to come home,” said Mr. Bissaillon, who was in the process of adopting two children from the orphanage. One day, his daughter was approved, but not his son, he said. The next, it was the reverse.

On Jan. 24, he and Mr. Cayo drove a pickup truck jammed with children to the embassy for the final time — 19 were on the list that day, including Mr. Bissaillon’s two children and the little boy who would join the Barrett family.

They were escorted by military personnel to the airport, loaded onto a military plane, ordered off the plane, and then told to board a charter. Mr. Bissaillon said he didn’t know where the plane was destined until moments before it landed at Orlando Sanford International Airport.

Over the next day, the children were processed and released to their waiting, anxiety-worn parents, many of whom had been in Florida, trying to get their own flights to Haiti.

Jesse Barrett flew to Florida to meet John Peter and take him home to meet his large new family in South Bend, Ind. In her testimony last week, Judge Barrett recalled the boy’s initial reaction.

“Jesse, who brought him home, still describes the shock on JP’s face when he got off the plane in wintertime Chicago,” she said. “Once that shock wore off, JP assumed the happy-go-lucky attitude that is still his signature trait.”

Susan C. Beachy and Harold Isaac contributed research.