The New York Times ran an article last week on what is happening to the children of Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake. Indeed, conditions are bleak and we are only beginning to get a handle on just how bleak. But what caused me the greatest pause in this article, was a quote from Kent Page, a spokesperson for UNICEF: “There are health concerns, malnutrition concerns, psychosocial issues and, of course, we are concerned that unaccompanied children will be exploited by unscrupulous people who may wish to traffic them for adoption, for the sex trade, or for domestic servitude.” This statement echoed another quote from UNICEF the week before in the World Bulletin, “Orphans and children abandoned in Haiti after the devastating earthquake should be adopted abroad only as a last resort.” Along this same vein was a comment made while I was being interviewed about Haiti on The Laura Flanders Show on GritTV. One of the other guests was David Smolin, law professor at Samford University Law School, a prolific writer on adoption corruption, and a victim of adoption fraud. (He was also a guest on the April 1, 2009 Creating a Family radio show.) At the end of the show, Flanders asked Smolin if he recommended transnational adoption as an option for the children orphaned in Haiti. He began his response with, “The problem with transnational adoption [is] corruption and child trafficking.” It seems to me that all three statements confuse the role of international adoption and serve to undermine the best interest of Haiti’s children, making them more vulnerable to unscrupulous adults. Excuse me one moment while I upend this box, step over the spilled soap, and climb on up.
All reputable child welfare and adoption advocacy organizations support a temporary moratorium on new adoptions from Haiti. It takes time for families and extended families to find each other after a catastrophe. It will take time for the Haitian legal system to function, and even more time for this system to focus on processing adoptions. The worst thing we could do right now is to hurriedly remove these displaced children from Haiti for either temporary fostering or adoption. After the dust settles, however, it will be time for Haiti, with the help of the international child welfare community, to plan for the expected tens of thousands of children orphaned by the earthquake and the approximately 380,000 children UNICEF estimates were orphaned before the quake. International adoption will likely not be the best solution for the majority of these children, but international adoption can and should play a role for some. Comparing adoption to sexual slavery and domestic servitude, relegating it to a last resort with no time limit for reaching this point, or overly focusing on the potential for adoption corruption does a disservice to the Haitian children that might be served by this option and to the hundreds of thousands of children who have grown up with the love and security of a family thanks to international adoption.
UNICEF is wise to be cautious about too quick adoptions. New adoptions are inappropriate in the midst of a natural disaster. UNICEF is also wise to be concerned about the potential for adoption fraud. It exists, and Haitian children will be especially vulnerable. But UNICEF, and the rest of us who care about children, should be equally concerned about too slow adoptions. The reality is that the Haitian adoption process before the earthquake was a travesty for children. Children grew up in orphanages with no contact with their biological families and no hope for an adoptive family because the process was unnecessarily restrictive (only childless couples married 10 years were eligible without a presidential waiver and obtaining a waiver often took 3 to 5 years) and burdened with bureaucratic red tape. We have years of research showing that long term institutionalization is devastating for the mental and physical health of children. Where was UNICEF’s indignant outrage over these children?
All child welfare organizations, including adoption advocacy groups, need to work together to help Haiti create a balanced system that will minimize child trafficking and fraudulent adoptions while encouraging permanency for children. In theory, it’s not that hard to picture such a system. First, we need to do everything in our power to keep functioning families together in Haiti. Most families will care for their children, as well as their orphaned nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and cousins, if they receive help with food, shelter, and work. We need to provide temporary care in Haiti for the children who have been separated from their families, rather than removing them for fostering abroad. Once it has been determined which children will not be able to be cared for by their family or extended family, adoptive Haitian families should be sought, both in Haiti, as well as in the Haitian communities in the US, France, and elsewhere.
For the children not adopted by Haitian families, international adoption should be considered. We need to help Haiti create a legal, efficient, and child focused international adoption process. Ultimately, the decision is Haiti’s but we can suggest reasonable restrictions on international adoptions, such as licensing agencies, restricting adoption fees, and requiring pre-adoption education for prospective parents on becoming a transracial family and maintaining cultural ties. The new adoption system should also include a reasonable time limit for how long children should wait for a Haitian family before being placed abroad. It’s fine for international adoptions to be the “last resort”, so long as there is a date certain to know when we’ve reached this resort.
Adoption will not be the best solution for some children. They may be too traumatized, or they may not want to leave all that they know behind. They may want to stay and be part of the rebuilding of their country. For these children, we need to support organizations that will provide a safe living place and an education until they are ready to live on their own.
Making inflammatory statements against one of the solutions for some of Haiti’s orphans serves only to divide the child welfare community, which is the last thing the children of Haiti need. These children need protection from exploitation of all kinds. A child being trafficked for any purpose, including adoption, is a tragedy. A child growing up in an institution, however, is also a tragedy. I worry that in an effort to protect against the possibility of fraud for the few, we will create a system that will insure an institutionalized childhood for the majority. A balance is possible, but only if we work together.
Image credit: United Nations Photo