On January 20, 2009, several Indianapolis area television stations received reports that Indiana's Department of Child Services was attempting to find families to house orphans from Haiti. The news broke overnight following emails and blogs posted by Safe Families for Children, a faith-based nonprofit which helps secure temporary safe housing for children in crisis. According to Kristen Davis of Safe Families Indiana, it all began with a phone call on Tuesday to their national director in Chicago. Davis indicated that James Payne, a former judge who now heads Indiana's Department of Child Services, had contacted the national office in Chicago to see if Safe Families would be able to accommodate up to 300 children on short notice. Reports indicated that Payne had received requests from the office of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Initial information suggested that the orphans' arrival could occur within 24-48 hours and that Republic Airlines had a plane ready to transport the children.
By Wednesday morning, news spread quickly with the help of local radio and television as well as the efforts of Indianapolis area law firm, Jocham Harden Dimick Jackson. Attorney Michele Jackson focuses her practice in adoption and is known for her extensive experience in international adoption and orphan visa issues. Jackson had recently appeared on local radio station WIBC discussing difficulties with international adoption following natural disasters. She shared her professional experience with adoptions from Haiti, a country which has been notoriously difficult in the past. Prior to the natural disaster, Haiti had approximately 300 children waiting for visa processing to the United States. In 2008 just over 300 US/Haiti inter-country adoptions were completed. That number is less than one-quarter of adoptions from other foreign countries such as Ukraine. Jackson reported she anticipated multiple difficulties due to logistical problems in Haiti and the need for U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) to issue special visas to expedite entry of orphans to the U.S. Despite those concerns, the information from Safe Families seemed to be confirmed in an email Jackson received from DCS Director Payne on Wednesday morning. Jackson and the staff of local adoption agency MLJ Adoptions, Inc. were encouraged by reports that 53 orphans from Haiti had arrived in Pittsburgh through humanitarian visas the night before.
Within a few hours of the media release that families were needed in Indiana to host Haitian orphans, both Safe Families and Jocham Harden Dimick Jackson were inundated with calls and emails of families eager to foster or adopt. Safe Families' blog site was temporarily offline and they ultimately had to stop accepting applications. Safe Families reported they received more than 5,500 hits on their blog from potential applicants and Jocham Harden Dimick Jackson reported approximately 1,000 inquiries. The agencies brought in extra volunteers to help answer calls and emails while attempting to manage the media frenzy.
As the local news stations began live coverage and interviews for their noon and evening reports, information stalled. Both Kristen Davis from Safe Families and attorney Jackson reported they were having difficulty getting updates or responses from DCS or the Governor's office. At approximately 3:52 pm, DCS released the following official statement:
Rumors are circulating today that orphaned children from Haiti are headed to Indiana. These rumors are not true.
As the terrible news from Haiti became known, Governor Daniels directed the Department of Child Services to learn more about how the state might assist. Meanwhile, indications of interest have come from good-hearted Hoosiers offering to help.
It is far from clear that any more children will be permitted to leave Haiti. Approval from both the United States and Haiti governments would be necessary.
When there is additional information to share, we will provide it. For today, we want to address the growing rumor: There are no Haitian children headed to Indiana nor are any arrivals imminent.
The staff and volunteers of Safe Families as well as Jackson's teams were at a loss as to the reason why DCS characterized the information as "rumors" given that DCS had initiated contact with Safe Families. Davis reiterated her statement in an interview with local CBS affiliate, WISH-TV, regarding the initial call from DCS Director James Payne. In an attempt to get a quote from the communications office at DCS, the only clarification provided was that it was "hypothetical."
While it remains unclear as to the motivations behind the initial inquiries to Safe Families, what is certain is that the people of Indiana were eager to open their homes to orphans from Haiti. Regardless of support from DCS or Governor Davis, both Safe Families and Jocham Harden Dimick Jackson remain committed to efforts to match Haitian orphans with qualified Indiana families. Jackson stated "while it would be helpful to have the state involved, their efforts aren't necessary - the only decision makers are the Haitian Central Authority and USCIS." She indicated she has a plan of action to thoroughly investigate and pursue any options. "Our efforts aren't hypothetical," she said. "This is about saving the lives of children."