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#3636: Girl draws attention to plight of orphans (fwd)

From: Rosann Clements <rosann@onemain.com>

Girl draws attention to plight of orphans

Web-posted: 11:13 p.m. May 14, 2000

   LAKE PARK -- Standing in line to buy meat, Henry Smith heard this
desperate entreaty from an old church acquaintance, a woman he barely knew:
   "I entrust my little girl to you," pleaded the mother of a 6-year-old,
herself an illegal immigrant from Haiti. "Please take care of her."
   Now, a year later, the girl's mother is dead. Her father's whereabouts
are unknown. And Smith, already a father of three, is determined to fulfill
his promise to raise Sophonie Telcy, an orphaned girl with big brown eyes
and a sweet smile missing two front teeth. She has no legal status in this
country but she has some friends in high places, including a congressman.
   "Her mother was sick and didn't want to be a burden on anyone," Smith
said. "But she did not want to take the girl back to Haiti. She wanted her
to live here."
   It is a scenario almost too difficult to imagine: a parent leaving a
young child alone in a foreign country. But it is not all that uncommon in
South Florida for immigrant children to be abandoned by parents who want
them to have access to a better life in America -- even if the parents
themselves cannot share that future.
   "They leave the kids behind," said Daniella Henry of the Delray
Beach-based Haitian Community Council. "They think leaving the child here
will be better than taking them to Haiti. It happens all the time."
   Most of these children blend seamlessly into their surroundings,
enrolling in public school, learning English and picking up American habits.
    But they are a vulnerable population. They don't take part in federal
assistance programs such as Head Start or after-school care programs that
require recipients to be legal residents. Ineligible for Medicaid, they are
often medically uninsured.
   When they become older, the problem of not being a legal resident becomes
nearly insurmountable. They will not be admitted to college without proof of
legal residency. Nor can they be hired without work authorization.
   "That's when it really hits home," said Randy McGrorty, a staff attorney
with Catholic Charities in Miami. His office typically handles 50 such cases
a year, he said. "The psychological tendency (of the guardian) is to not
rock the boat, to lay low. But there are a lot of benefits and services
these kids miss out on."
   Convincing the courts
   But there is help. Typically, McGrorty wins residency for the children by
first having a family court determine that the child has been abandoned,
abused or neglected, and that it is not in their best interest to be
returned to their native country. With that court order in hand, an
immigration judge will grant residency to the child, said McGrorty.
   "We handle these all the time," he said. "It can be trickier in
jurisdictions where there is not such a sensitivity to immigration issues.
Judges there tend to see it not as a true family court issue and don't want
to get involved."
    Parent Elizabeth Dameus, of Boynton Beach, knows first hand what it is
to be the guardian of a child left behind by immigrant parents.
   A promise to her friend to temporarily take care of Emeric Jean-Come, 12,
turned into a lifelong commitment when the mother died. Dameus and her
husband intend to raise the boy, whose immigrant mother had not legalized
her status before she died in February 1999.
   Dameus sought residency for the boy in March by applying under the
Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act. She does not know whether he will be
accepted. In the meantime, she worries about the emotional impact of losing
his parent and being in legal limbo.
    "They shouldn't make it so hard for him to get status," said Dameus, 27.
"His mother died and he couldn't go to the funeral because he might not be
able to get back in the country. He is trying to be strong about it but you
can see it affects him. He is only a kid. He is innocent."
   Such stories got the attention of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar,
who has picked up the cause of unaccompanied child immigrants.
    Hastings is proposing that the attorney general set up an independent
panel of advisors to help unaccompanied minors placed in deportation
   Consisting of social workers, educators and psychologists, such a panel
would function much like the guardian ad litem program in state family
court. In that program, unbiased volunteers advocate the best interest of
the child before a family judge.
   Hastings is proposing that the same process be established for
unaccompanied minors in immigration court.
   Hastings was drawn into the issue because of the resources directed at
keeping Elián González from being returned to Cuba. He said the attention
given to Elián's case points out the disparate treatment of most Haitian
   "Where the circumstances are the same, the treatment should be the same,"
he said in a statement. He has also introduced a bill in Congress to grant
Sophonie residency.
   That bill has bolstered the hopes of Sophonie's guardian, Henry Smith.
   Smith said he met Sophonie's mother, Sana Romelus, at a church meeting in
1990 in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
   In 1994, Smith was aboard a refugee boat intercepted by the Coast Guard
on the way to the United States. Smith was taken to the U.S. naval base at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There he told his story of political persecution in
Haiti because of his support for ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide and
was granted political asylum.
   In the United States, he married Jeanine, another Haitian refugee from
Guantanamo, got work as a construction worker, and built a family.
   Last year, he was standing in a local meat shop when he heard his name
called. It was Romelus.
   "I did not even recognize her at first. She remembered me," Smith said.
"I was surprised to see her."
   The two reminisced about Haiti. But Smith said Romelus also talked about
her troubles. She was sick and had felt pain in her stomach for months. She
didn't have enough money to see a doctor.
   She intended to go back to Haiti. Would he consider looking after her
   Smith agreed.
   'A child in need'
   "What could I do?" he said. "Sophonie was a child in need. I think I had
a moral responsibility."
   Then he heard that Romelus had died. The news was confirmed when, with
the help of his mother in Haiti, he obtained the woman's death certificate.
   As Smith talks, the little girl emerges from a back bedroom where she had
been playing with two of his children. She is waving a blue drawing of her
foot she made in school.
   She wants to be a doctor when she grows up, she says, explaining, "It's
fun to give people medicine."
   Smith said the girl's demeanor has improved in the months she has lived
with him. When he first told her that her mother had died, "she cried and
cried" and withdrew, Smith said.
   But now she plays well with his three children and is learning to read in
   "If you compare her to Elián, she has more problems," Smith said. "People
are fighting very hard to keep Elián here. But she doesn't have anyone back
there who is making a claim on her. So why send her back?"
    The Sophonie Telcy Special Needs Trust Fund, established by Hastings'
office, is c/o Chuck West, RK Grace and Co., 1101 Brickell Ave., South Tower
5th Floor, Miami, FL 33131.

   Jody A. Benjamin can be reached at 954-356-4530 or