Monday, September 23, 2013

Witness Story #2: Troy and Tara Livesay

Before I dive into the story of how we came to be involved in the Giving Hope Rescue Mission drama, I want to quickly share a tiny bit of background information. My family and I live in Port au Prince and have lived and worked full time in Haiti since January 2006.  Troy and I have seven children, three of whom are adopted from Haiti.

We first came to Haiti in 2002 when we adopted two of our three Haitian children. In the 12 years that we have been involved in International Adoption and orphan-care we have seen both excellent and horrific behavior and practices take place.  We come at it (adoption in general) from a unique perspective due to our family history and our growing understanding of Haitian culture.  Because we have full-time work we do in Haiti, we’ve only hesitantly and quite rarely become involved in any of the difficult or unethical situations we’ve observed in our time living in Haiti.

For the sake of ease, throughout this post I will use the word “missionary”.  I use that word to describe folks that are expatriates living and working in Haiti. They may or may not consider themselves missionaries. The word means different things to different people.

In mid June of 2012 I received a message from a couple adopting from Giving Hope Rescue Mission named Amanda and Jeremy. We had previously corresponded very briefly in early 2012 as they were researching adopting from Haiti. My advice to them was to proceed with caution and visit in person if at all possible. We did not have further contact after that short interaction.

In her June 2012 note to me Amanda introduced herself again and explained that she was wondering if we or any other missionaries we knew and trusted would consider doing foster care for the remainder of their adoption if they could be granted permission to move their son out of the orphanage. Amanda and her husband were concerned because Heather Elyse had contacted them and told them that their son was showing signs of stress and pulling his own hair out. Due to that and a few things that I prefer Amanda choose to share, rather than myself; they felt he would benefit from individualized care.  Clearly, everyone agrees that institutionalized care is not what is best for children.  Sadly, we all know that many times for a variety of reasons it is not possible for children to live in foster-care or family settings during their adoption process. Amanda and Jeremy were seeking permission from Heather and wanted to first know that they had a safe place to move their son, “AJ”. 

Heather Elyse at that time was posting quite publicly on a blog and on a public Facebook page about her belief that foster care was always better than orphanage care so the couple had reason to hope their son could be granted permission to be moved.

Our family had previously provided foster care for four other children during our seven years in Haiti. The time frames varied from six weeks to two years and we felt experienced and prepared for both the joyful and the painful part of that endeavor. My husband and I took a few days to think and pray about the request and we decided to offer to become a foster family for AJ. We wrote back to Amanda and Jeremy to agree to take care of their son from August 2012 until the adoption was finished.

Within a week or two of saying yes, with some discussions of our parameters, Amanda wrote to say that originally Heather verbally agreed to the plan via a phone call, but that shortly after that Heather Elyse had somehow become offended and had changed her mind and would not allow the family to move AJ to our home.   

Amanda and Jeremy did not understand why Heather had changed her mind so quickly after agreeing to allow AJ to be moved.  Amanda did not elaborate with us other than to say that Heather did not like our request to have our nanny accompany AJ to appointments at the crèche. Amanda and Jeremy wanted to just let it go and not press the issue. I never had any direct contact with Heather Elyse regarding the family.

We were an outside party in the matter. We supported the discretion of Jeremy and Amanda to decide how to proceed and we faded into the background by the middle of July 2012.  

We had almost no contact with Amanda and Jeremy from mid July 2012 until early 2013.

On January 26, 2013 Amanda wrote to me to ask if I knew if having an adoption decree in Haiti might make it a possibility to move AJ. She and Jeremy had learned that the adoption had advanced and that AJ was legally their son and carried their last name. She shared that they were having a hard time getting information about his health, that he was still pulling out all of his hair, and that they had not been allowed to visit. They had not seen him for 10 months and other families were not allowed to visit either and so she was unsure about what was going on at the creche.

There was a rumor we were aware of at that time in Haiti (in the missionary community) and on a missionary Facebook group that some of the kids at Giving Hope Rescue Mission had Cholera and one child had died of mysterious causes. Understandably, Amanda and Jeremy were trying to find out if AJ was well.  Cholera is an ongoing and serious issue in Haiti and is not cause to blame anyone, but of course parents want to know if their child is violently ill and/or at risk of becoming ill. We replied to them and said that we were not sure of what was legally permissible but that we were still open to providing foster care for AJ if they could do the research about how to go about that legally and still wished to attempt to move him.

Heather kept promising to speak with Jeremy but was never available and had changed her phone number. They had no way to know if AJ was sick with Cholera and felt that they were not allowed to ask for information from the rest of the staff. I offered to try to contact a missionary that was working for Heather Elyse to find out what was going on.

On February 11, 2013 I wrote to Ryan and Heather F., a young couple that had moved to Haiti in September of 2012. They invited us to lunch at the resort they were living at, Club Indigo, near the Giving Hope Rescue Mission crèche. On February 13, 2013 my daughter, Paige, and I went to Club Indigo planning to meet Ryan and his family for lunch and hopefully try to find out if AJ was doing okay. 

When we arrived at Club Indigo Ryan invited us to have pizza lunch with he and his wife and a young missionary teacher at the orphanage named Rebekah S.  We ate together and talked a little bit about their jobs with Giving Hope Rescue Mission.  Ryan and his wife were planning to adopt two Haitian children who were living with them at the time. When I asked how the laws in Haiti regarding age would affect them, they said, “Well, Heather Elyse says we might be the exception to the rule.”

Toward the end of a two hour lunch together I asked Rebekah S. if I could see the orphanage and mentioned that we have three acquaintances (we knew two couples other than Jeremy and Amanda adopting from Heather Elyse at that time) and would be interested in seeing where the kids live.  Rebekah instantly appeared nervous and turned to Heather F. to field my question instead.  Heather F. then turned to Ryan F. and said, “I don’t know, Ryan, what is the policy on seeing the orphanage right now?”  Ryan hesitated a bit and said, “I would have to get permission from Heather Elyse or Michelle See in the United States and I don’t think I can do that today.”  

We all left lunch at that time and I did not speak to Ryan again until we were leaving Club Indigo for the day.  As we were leaving I said, “Ryan, we do not get out this far from Port au Prince very often and I’d really love to see where the kids are and know a little bit more about what you do here. Can we stop in for five minutes and see the orphanage on our way out of town?”  Ryan replied with different wording but again said, “No, I am not allowed to show you the orphanage. You need to get Heather Elyse's permission.”

We were not offended that Ryan chose not to show us, but we were very concerned by the fear displayed by the missionaries when we asked about visiting.

We went home to call Amanda and Jeremy and tell them that we had not been able to confirm that AJ was well and that the staff had clearly become uncomfortable when pushed for the chance to see their orphanage.

Within our community here in Haiti we had begun to hear things about Giving Hope Rescue Mission. We knew other missionaries who had met Heather Elyse or had strange encounters with her that felt “off.” We also heard that Heather was moving kids to alternate locations outside of the creche and we heard from two separate organizations that they had taken in a few of the children from Heather Elyse’s Giving Hope Rescue Mission creche.  One friend confirmed that six kids had been moved to her orphanage.

During this time adoptive parents were being scolded for talking about the Cholera problem outside of the approved Facebook group. They were being told that they needed to have faith and trust Heather Elyse.

As long-term advocates for quality orphan care and ethical adoptions we encouraged Amanda and Jeremy to dig deeper and try to find out where AJ was and what his story was (they had shared concerns with us regarding the story they had been given about his birthmother.) He was, after all, legally their child in the eyes of Haitian law. We believed they had a right to know where he was and how he was and if children were being moved around so freely, why did Amanda and Jeremy not have the right to move AJ? (They had asked Heather again to move him to our home but not gotten an affirmative response.)

Amanda and Jeremy arrived in Haiti on Sunday, February 24, 2013.  I picked them up from the airport and we hosted them at our home.

My husband and I were both with them the entire day of February 26, 2013 when they went to court in St Marc, Haiti to file a motion for custody. We were told at the beginning of the day that the judge would hear the case and then we would return 2 days later for a final decision and probably for custody of AJ.

On that day we drove to court together (approx. 2.5 hours north of Port au Prince.)  We sat in on the court proceedings and witnessed the Judge deciding to go to the orphanage to see AJ in his living environment.  I video-recorded and audio-recorded much of that day and have it in my possession. It was a calm, ordered, non-threatening entrance into the orphanage. No one so much as raised his or her voice.  The Judge himself stopped to ask a few of the local police men and the justice of the peace in Montrouis to join us at the orphanage.  When we arrived Pierre Wesmin Garcon, Haitian crèche director, was called to accompany us past the gate into the grounds and to answer some questions posed by the judge regarding the number of kids in care, the adoption process and the children’s files.

Upon entering the orphanage/crèche it was obvious to the group that most of the children were gone. (There are two buildings on the grounds separated by a large courtyard. We were at the “baby house” which was empty.) I saw Rebekah, the girl I had sat with for lunch on February 13, 2013. I asked Rebekah, “Where is AJ, the 18 month old little boy these people are adopting.”  Rebekah said, “I know where he is but if I told you I would get in trouble.”  I then said, “They have been told conflicting information about his health, first that he had cholera and then that he did not. Can you tell me if he had Cholera and if he is okay?”  Rebekah said, “Yes, he had Cholera, I am the one that was with him in the hospital in Port au Prince.”  Amanda then asked Rebekah if AJ was living at a nearby hotel, Club Indigo, (where Heather had once intimated that he might be “quarantined.”) 

Rebekah said that she lived at Club Indigo and that AJ definitely was not living there. She said that she had not seen any of the other babies since the end of January 2013. (According to the family approximately 40-60 children were unaccounted for.) When Amanda asked another American volunteer named Sheena, “Where are all the babies?” The volunteer replied, “What babies?” and then said, “You’ll have to ask Wesmin.”

While our husbands stood to the side listening to the judge speaking to Wesmin and trying to determine where the children were, Rebekah told Amanda and I that she was “scared of Wesmin” and asked us to make sure he didn’t see her talking to us. She was nervous and visibly concerned about breaking rules to speak with us.

The Judge repeatedly asked Wesmin where AJ was and Wesmin repeatedly refused to give that information to the Judge.  After the Judge asked Wesmin dozens of questions about the children and adoption process, that he refused to answer, the Judge had Wesmin put into hand-cuffs. It was the Haitian Judge’s decision to do that.  Finally, Wesmin said that if we would take him to Club Indigo Resort, he would be able to show us that AJ was well.

When we arrived at Club Indigo, a short distance from the mainly unoccupied crèche, the Judge and the police went to the front desk of the hotel inquiring where children are kept on their property.

At Club Indigo, while we waited for 10 to 15 minutes for the judge to discuss the situation with the front desk and security, I stepped away and called Ryan F. on the telephone and asked him where AJ was.  Ryan F. also refused to say where he was stating, “We are not allowed to talk without Heather’s permission.”  I questioned him on the health of an organization so tightly controlled by someone and he replied, “Well, we are leaving Haiti tomorrow so I won’t be working for her anymore.”  He refused to come out of his hotel room, be witness to the situation, or give any information. I never saw Ryan that day.  No other North American missionaries were at the hotel front desk or involved in these conversations. Neither Troy or I or Amanda or Jeremy spoke to anyone connected to the hotel. The judge and police talked to the desk agents, the rest of us observed.

We were led by Wesmin and security to an apartment that was said to be Heather Elyse’s personal apartment. There were a few nannies and a handful of babies in a room there. There were not cribs or toys.  AJ was in the room.  The Judge asked that AJ and Wesmin and a nanny for AJ all come back to court in St Marc to discuss transferring custody to his legal parents, Amanda and Jeremy.

The judge present was non-threatening and the situation quite calm. Ryan F. told me on the telephone call that he and Wesmin “were not speaking” to one another. It seemed as though the culture of the organization was one of fear and silence.  None of the five American volunteers followed us back to the court in St Marc for the afternoon proceedings that took place. Wesmin refused over and over to tell the judge anything about where the kids were located. The judge demanded that the nannies gather the files on all children and bring them to court. Wesmin was uncooperative and unable to produce the documents the court requested to prove the crèche was operating legally.

We were all very surprised since concerns were escalating far beyond AJ and where he was located.

At the end of the day the Judge and the magistrate over the case awarded custody of AJ to Amanda and Jeremy, with Wesmin’s permission. Stating that because they had IBESR (Haitian Social Services Department) approval and AJ legally carried their last name that it was their prerogative to move him wherever they wished. A court decree/order was signed and Amanda and Jeremy agreed to give Wesmin 20 working days to produce their dossier and passport. Jeremy and Amanda had no other requests and did not ask for any money back. We left the courtroom to return home with AJ.  He has been with us in our care ever since.

Afterwards were accused by Heather Elyse of “having Wesmin arrested and beat up.”

At the time we left court Wesmin had not been beaten up and we had nothing to do with the Judge deciding to hold him for one night.  Wesmin repeatedly refused to answer questions and never disclosed where the children were located. His arrest was due to non-compliance with the court, judge, and laws of Haiti. We left before the situation was resolved but we recognized that the judge had concerns that were much more expansive than the simple issue of AJ’s custody.

The night we returned home we began receiving emails accusing us and AJ’s family of extortion, beating Wesmin, illegal activities and “raiding” the crèche. We were very surprised by all of this and agreed with Jeremy and Amanda that none of us would respond overly rapidly. We would try to find out exactly what was going on before responding. Unfortunately this became much worse and we all received a handful of accusatory  emails from families in process who felt that, given what Heather was saying, we had somehow jeopardized their adoptions.

Since the information about our involvement in helping AJ’s family leaked out, we have had multiple families in and outside of Haiti contact us with their stories and concerns about Giving Hope Rescue Mission. Some have even come to meet with us in person to share their experiences due to fear of putting it in writing. Many are too frightened to have their names made public due to concerns of retribution for speaking with us.  One woman shared very disturbing information that matched exactly with two other accounts we had heard previously from two other people.  Because that is all hearsay, I will allow those stories to be told by the folks that have the first hand experience. The people coming forward all do so with fear and trepidation stating that they are certain Heather would stop their adoption or make trouble for them and punish them if they voiced their concerns.  Some are concerned for their physical safety in Haiti.
We have now watched Amanda and Jeremy walk a very hard road to bringing AJ home. (He is not home yet.) They have come to Haiti multiple times since February 2013 attempting get their adoption documents from Heather Elyse and/or Wesmin Garcon.  In March of 2013, after the 20 working days provided by the court order were up, Jeremy was here with us to receive AJ’s dossier and passport. Voice of the Orphan President, Tim Rowe, determined that they would not receive these documents. Thus preventing the adoption from continuing.

In April of 2013 Troy was with Amanda at the US Embassy as she met with friends hoping to figure out how to move forward with AJ’s adoption. An investigator from the US State Department joined them and Troy was present when the investigator confirmed that there was an ongoing investigation (that did not begin due to Amanda and Jeremy removing their son.) She also gave Amanda and Troy verbal permission to share her email and telephone number.

~  ~    ~   ~

The remaining portion of this is purely our opinion…

We recognize that Heather Elyse has created an environment of fear and secrecy and has encouraged her staff that it is a normal and necessary security measure. We have never encountered this sort of behavior or this system of total lock-down rules in Haiti.

Having worked in Haiti for years, we have been granted tours to every other ministry we have asked to tour. The ministries we have worked with have always granted tours. The workers on the ground are given authority to make decisions without calling for permission at every turn. Of course there are measures to protect kids from strangers interacting with them without supervision if background checks have not been run or supervision is not available then that is totally appropriate. There is however a large difference between careful and wise and paranoid and secretive. We have never heard of this happening or not been allowed to visit a crèche when accompanied by staff.  The secrecy left us feeling like there must be something to hide. And it turns out that suspicion was right.

A ‘common’ occurrence at Giving Hope Rescue Mission of birth families or birth moms (described to us by multiple missionaries and adoptive families) frequently returning for their children is not at all a common occurrence at other organizations that are doing adoptions. If done correctly, there is counseling given to a birth mother and if done VERY well the mother is asked to take a few weeks to consider other options and think it through before she relinquishes her child. At the time of relinquishment a legally binding document is signed and the mother is made aware that she is losing the rights to her child.  Additionally, Heather repeatedly says that she takes only “true orphans” and “abandoned “ children.  If that were true, there would not be so many stories of birth families returning for their children.  No referral should ever be given to a family for a child that is not legally and totally already relinquished. That’s an unethical and unusual practice.

In July of 2013 Heather Elyse said this to all of her adoptive families:

“I know there are lots of blogs going around stating that they adopted their child and then found out it wasn't legit later on. I want to throw up when I read those blogs. How dare an adoptive parent say that after they have adopted and the child is living with them? What kind of message is that saying to the child? My response to those kind of ignorant blogs is: if you feel your adoption was unethical then please give your child back and stop blogging about it. I am sure bio parents will only do drugs on the weekends and maybe they can finish 4th grade. ;) (sarcasm)”

I am deeply concerned about someone operating in Haiti that has such a disdain for the Haitian people. I have been sent evidence of derogatory things being said and written by Heather Elyse about the beautiful and strong people that inhabit the island.  Earlier this year, in frustration over the stories coming out of Giving Hope Rescue Mission, after meeting with more than one family that felt they needed clarification on things,  I wrote a few posts about adoption ethics. One post was about how easily birth families can be taken advantage of by powerful people that are misusing their position to coerce adoptions for the sake of financial gain or increased prestige or power. I am deeply concerned about this and want to use the pain of our mistakes to educate and inform others. In no way, shape, or form does discouraging unethical adoptions equal an anti-adoption stance.

We have had the joy and honor of walking with mothers of all ages in Haiti. We can tell you that they deserve to be loved, uplifted, and encouraged. They are doing the heavy lifting in a very difficult culture and country. The Haitian people need friends that come to walk along side them in respect and relationship, people to champion their cause and act as advocates.

Troy and Tara

Waiting outside of Giving Hope Rescue Mission
Wesmin calmly being searched prior to leaving GHRM for Club Indigo
Wesmin leading the group to Club Indigo main entrance

Wesmin and judge discussing with Club Indigo staff