PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Private medical evacuations of critically injured Haitian children to the United States for treatment have largely stopped because aid workers, doctors and government officials are worried about being accused of kidnapping if they transport the children without first getting paperwork that is slow to arrive or is unavailable.
Before 10 Americans were arrested trying to take children out of Haiti late last month, the largest pediatric field hospital in Haiti was airlifting 15 injured children aboard private flights to the United States each day.
But since the arrests, it has been able to evacuate only three children on private flights to American hospitals, according to Elizabeth Greig, the field hospital’s chief administrative officer, who has been in charge of trying to get the necessary Haitian and U.S. approvals.
At least 10 other children have died or become worse while waiting to be airlifted out of the country, she said. Dozens of children are in critical need of care, and there has been no shortage of American hospitals or pilots willing to take them.
But before being permitted to evacuate the children, some doctors said they were now being asked by U.S. and Haitian officials for documents proving that the children were orphans or that the adult traveling with them was a parent — a challenging task considering that many residents’ birth certificates and other records remained buried under the rubble.
“They’re all at risk of dying, and none of these children should still be here in Haiti,” said Dr. Shayan Vyas, an American pediatrician changing an IV at the pediatric field hospital, which is based here at the Port-au-Prince airport and handles most of the private pediatric airlifts out of Haiti.
Other clinics here in Haiti have also conducted private evacuations, but they, too, are wrestling with the burden of proving that they are not illegally transporting children, according to those involved in the relief effort.
Whatever intentions the 10 jailed Americans had when they tried to whisk the children across the border without government approval, many Haitians and aid workers say the case has become a dangerous distraction for a country still in the throes of a huge humanitarian crisis.
Last week, Haiti’s prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, observed that reporters were “talking more now about 10 people than they are about one million people suffering in the streets.”
Dr. Lee Sanders, an American pediatrician at the airport field hospital, took the point a step further. “For these kids the kidnapping case isn’t just a distraction,” he said, as he changed a dressing on a girl’s infected leg. “It has become the difference between life and death.”
Previously, doctors, pilots and aid workers air-lifted children with life-threatening conditions out of the country immediately after triage, and then completed the paperwork after the children were stabilized.