I’ve written the checks, helped send supplies and done all measure of hand-wringing. But still when I read about the tragedy that has struck, I feel there is more my family and I are meant to do. So. OK. Call me naive, ignorant or foolish, but I was one of the many who heard about the travesty of orphans in Haiti and suddenly wanted more than anything to adopt a needy child from that devastated country.
Here are the facts as best we know them. According to Dr. Jane Aronsen of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, there were already 380,000 children orphaned in Haiti before the quake and only about 300 American adoptions from the country every year; 1,500 worldwide. Since the quake, estimates have ranged from tens to hundreds of thousands more orphaned or abandoned children. Additionally, the UN reports that more than 40 percent of the population is under the age of 14; that’s four million young children currently trying to survive in a country that is ill-prepared to deal with more hardship.
And then I heard NPR’s Debbie Elliott speaking about the tragedy of the children left behind, and it was all I could do not to catch the next plane and find my child, the one whose life I might be able to save. (Oh right, someone else had that idea and it didn’t really work out too well, did it?)
Christine Gonzales, mother of adopted children from Haiti, understands this urge. She cautions restraint,
“As the rest of the world watches, we cannot help but hurt and hope and desperately seek ways to help. Pictures of orphans and news stories of destruction cause us all to want to grab a passport and come home with as many children possible. It is normal. Yet, it is not practical. At this point in time, it is also not best. The children of Haiti need every opportunity to be raised, in Haiti, in a safe and healthy home (even if, right now, it is a tent). Due to the recent catastrophe, it will easily take weeks, possibly months, to locate family of displaced children. Yet, for the sake of these kids, that must be the main focus at this time.”
UNICEF agrees. Its position on inter-country adoption is as follows:
“The case of children separated from their parents and communities during war or natural disasters merits special mention. It cannot be assumed that such children have neither living parents nor relatives. Even if both their parents are dead, the chances of finding living relatives, a community and home to return to after the conflict subsides exist. Thus, such children should not be considered for inter-country adoption, and family tracing should be the priority.”
Blogger Kristin Howerton is the mother of adopted Haitian son Kembe. She doesn’t agree with UNICEF’s stance.
“I am cognizant of the losses involved in adoption and specifically the cultural losses involved in international adoption. However, children who never form loving attachments with adults are at risk for much greater losses than cultural identity. Studies show institutionalized children are at high risk for incarceration and may exhibit developmental delays, hoarding/stealing, hyper-sexual behavior, habitual lying, outbursts of rage, autistic traits and cruelty to children or animals. Parents who have adopted older children from orphanages know the harsh reality of attachment issues and are doing the difficult therapeutic parenting required to reverse these effects. You have likely angered many of them with a casual endorsement of UNICEF's anti-adoption stance, when they observe the far-reaching issues their children face even after adoption.
Heroes such as Dr. Yvonne Jean-Francois is deeply concerned. She is a Haitian-American from the Bronx and has been serving as a temporary medical director for a makeshift facility to assist earthquake victims since mid-January. She finds it hard to imagine how children can remain safe from trafficking and exploitation in the weeks and months ahead. “It’s just kids on the streets,” she said. “It’s much easier now for people to access children, especially because there are so many orphans.”
There have been stories of success. Another hero, pediatrician Dr. Jen Halverson, who temporarily left her practice in Minnesota to assist after the earthquake, believes the hard work of reuniting children with their parents is essential. She writes movingly of the efforts to find the parents of the children for whom she has helped. One boy was incredibly lucky.
“Several people were working on finding his dad. Lisa Hojara took him out into Port au Prince to see if he would recognize anything. Eventually, Lisa and Ryan, one of our nurses, took him to one of the Haitian TV stations. They interviewed him and aired the interview that night. The next day, his dad walked into Heartline Hospital. The smile on this boy's face was indescribable. His dad's smile was just as wide. Dad told me he hadn't seen his son in about a month. Watching dad interact with his son was very, very cool.”
However, if this earthquake is, as UNICEF has said, a children’s emergency, then can caution and restraint be optimal? Adopting from Haiti is notoriously slow and cumbersome. Three different Haitian governmental agencies are involved, each with its own bureaucracy (and histories of corruption) leading to adoptions that can take upwards of three to five years. Kathy Cassel adopted twins from Haiti. She started in 2006 and finally got them two weeks after the earthquake. If the earthquake didn’t happen, would it have taken that much longer?
Dawn, an adoptive mother, provides a thorough analysis of the issue of adopting from Haiti on her blog, “Creating a Family.” She says,
“Haiti, in some ways, is a microcosm of the larger debate on the place of international adoption in a third world country’s child welfare system. In other ways, Haiti stands unique in the degree of poverty and family disintegration. These problems existed before the earthquake, but the earthquake has exacerbated the problem and focused the world’s attention on Haiti for this short time.”
Given a tragedy of these dimensions, you would think the orphanages are overwhelmed. But UNICEF is blocking the delivery of children to Haitian orphanages due to fear of trafficking, exploitation and the belief that Haiti’s children should stay in the country. Dixie Bickel, an American nurse who has been in Haiti for 19 years and currently is the director of God’s Little Angels (a Haitian orphanage ministering to children since 1994), writes on her blog,
“8 weeks ago we had 152 children at GLA and in approximately 2 weeks time all but 17 of those children left Haiti to join their “forever” families. [Since then,] we have received lots of children. Some from other orphanages, some from mothers living on the street, some for adoptions, and some here for help only. We started with 17 children in February and now have 66! UNICEF still has not allowed any children to be placed at GLA.”
Claudia D’Arcy believes we need to understand that orphanages serve a different role in countries like Haiti.
“For many undeveloped countries, an orphanage is not a place where children go if they have no parents. Often an orphanage is run by missionaries or organizations funded from other more Westernized countries. It is only in an orphanage that children are guaranteed a certain level of care, such as an education; basic needs of life, such as food and clothing; and medical attention. In many countries, it is only the act of placing these children in orphanages that enables their survival. Of course, in a war-torn or famine-ridden society, these desperate parents truly WANT their children to be in an orphanage as that is the only way these children have a chance to live.”
They may serve a different role, but if the children aren’t allowed to even get to the orphanages, how can the needy be helped? SOS Children’s Villages thinks it has the answer. This NGO provides “families” to abandoned children by setting up homes with a “mother” and “siblings.” The children are not adopted off to other countries but are raised in country by a paid “mother” in sanctioned living quarters. This organization was entrusted with the 33 children allegedly kidnapped by the 10 deeply misguided American “do-gooders.” Currently, SOS Children’s Villages in Haiti are taking in young victims by the hundreds with the support of UNICEF and the Haitian government.
It is clear to me after all of this that adopting a child from Haiti is not likely in our future. Despite great need, my child would be locked in a political game of tug-of-war. I am grateful for the thousands of volunteers, such as Dr. Yvonne Jean-Francois and Dr. Jen Havlerson, and the work they are doing. But one day, they will go home, and the country will be left with over 500,000 abandoned children. If the orphanages can’t take them for bureaucratic and political reasons and NGOs, such as SOS Children’s Villages, are too overwhelmed to meet the need, who will care them then? My child needs help now.
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