July 12th, 2010
01:40 PM ET

A Haitian orphan, adapting to her new life in America

Justine Redman
AC360° Producer

Program Note: Six months after the earthquake in Haiti, are things any better? Anderson Cooper will be reporting live from Haiti tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET

Jenna was an orphan, one of Haiti's thousands. She lived in an orphanage on a hillside on the outskirts of Port au Prince. Her mother was still alive, but she gave her baby away, keeping only Jenna's older sister.

Elizabeth was a single woman, caucasian, living beneath the mountainsides on the outskirts of Denver. She had a Phd in child development. She went to Haiti, met Jenna, and decided to adopt her. Then Elizabeth went home, and started the process, filing all the papers, making the applications.

But then the earthquake struck. Elizabeth didn't know what happened to Jenna. The phones didn't work, nobody could make a call to put a prospective mother's mind at rest.

Two days later, CNN  stumbled on Jenna's orphanage. Our camera captured Jenna, Elizabeth saw the report on TV and could see for herself: Jenna was safe. The orphanage was a strong house, made of stone. An outside roof collapsed, but the children weren't hurt.  Nonetheless their caretakers took them outside and camped with them on the driveway, scared of what the aftershocks might bring.

Very soon, Jenna was on a military plane to America. The expediting of her adoption was the silver lining of Haiti's tragedy.

Six months later, Jenna is an energetic, friendly, and bright little girl, going to pre-school and living a comfortable, privileged life with her adoptive mother in Colorado. She wears pretty dresses, and likes to talk authoritatively on her toy mobile phone. But alongside this happiness, this is also the time when Jenna's pain begins to unmask itself. She's starting to have tantrums so vicious that they scare her mother. Elizabeth says  the process of figuring out how trauma affects a two year old has been challenging.

"That's proving to be harder than I expected," Elizabeth says on a hot summer's day in the playground. "When you're two and you can't verbalize it, you don't know how it's affecting her. But she's starting to hit a lot and get angry a lot at little things. What we've heard from other [adoptive] families is that a lot of the kids, six months later, are starting to act out and kind of in their own way say, 'I gotta tell you this terrible thing that happened to me while I was in Haiti, and I'm ready to tell you that because I trust you now."

But while the world is focused on the horrors of Haiti's earthquake, for young children like Jenna, the trauma they have experienced in their short lives runs deeper than the fault lines. The quake may actually be the least of her worries.The reality is that Jenna wasn't hurt by the quake, she didn't experience the fear of having a building collapse around her. We don't know how much she noticed of the moments in which the city crumbled.  But we do know that she was a baby separated from her mother. We know she was put in an orphanage that was better than most on Haiti, but which could never duplicate a parent's love. And we know that she went in a flash from the poorest nation in the hemisphere to the richest, and found herself suddenly in a world she never knew existed.

That's a lot of trauma packed into two years.

"Two weeks ago  she had a temper tantrum which was kind of like the second night she was here, where she was just flailing like a fish, and just...out of body. She had been kind of hitting me, I was trying to understand what she needed," Elizabeth recalls as an affectionate Jenna climbs onto her mother's lap. "Even her eyes go blank, and you can't even hold her. We just put her on the ground until she started to cry and reach for us, and then we held her and protected her and let her know she was safe. It's happened a couple of times, and both those times it was really scary. I have PhD in child development, and I'm proud to say, I'm not prepared to help her. I love her, and we're going to be great, but it's unchartered territory."

Jenna climbs back down off Elizabeth's knees, and runs to play on the swings. She's smiling and happy, and could be any toddler going through their "terrible two's." Her tantrums, Elizabeth says, are only a fraction of who her daughter is.

"The rest of her day, as you see, she's amazing. She makes people fall in love with her wherever she goes.... She has made my life so much richer... It's like she's always been here."    

Filed under: Gary Tuchman • Haiti Earthquake • Justine Redman
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Truthsayer

    Why do so-called "smart" people keep banging their heads against concrete facts? Trying to lift up lower animals is a dangerous occupation. Give it up. Leave them to nature. You can not make these wild negroids into civilized people.

    July 15, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  2. BetterthanthatotherMom

    At least she isn't sending her adoptive child back like that other mother whose name we shall not speak. (Or just forgot at the moment)

    July 13, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  3. Rose from Muscoy, Calif

    This lady is a special woman, taking a child with what might be some mental trama from the earthquake. Which can be taking care of with some T.L.C.

    July 12, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  4. Heather (Qc)

    Though he doesn't mention it in the video, Gary apparently had his daughter working with him when they filmed these segments. A lovely and perfectly-suited father-daughter touch on a very important . That has to be one extremely proud daughter!

    I remember watching the videos of the children at that orphanage – the children and the young women running the orphanage were close. So in a short period of time Jenna lost two families, and all her little friends. One has to wonder if she's expecting this family to disappear too.

    July 12, 2010 at 2:20 pm |

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