UNICEF and International Adoptions from Haiti

Dawn Davenport


Haiti: International Adoptions

How can we best help orphans in Haiti?

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

01/02/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 33 Comments

33 Responses to UNICEF and International Adoptions from Haiti

  1. Avatar Dawn says:

    Cetho, I don’t think that most people who work for UNICEF view themselves as anti-adoption. I , of course, am not in the position to speak for them, but that is my perception. UNICEF as an organization has a stated policy that international adoption is one option for children that can not be raised by their parents. The devil is in the details, as always.

    Adoption advocates, of which I count myself, have our share of folks that blindly support adoptions and child welfare programs that, if not outright fraudulent or trafficking, at the very least act as an incentive to cause birth families to relinquish children. Smolin calls it the economic pull. He is so right. In other words, I don’t see adoption advocates as wearing the white hat, while UNICEF wears the black hat. It’s far more nuanced than that.

  2. Avatar Lois says:

    Dawn, I totally agree. I’ve often been very suspect of UNICEF’s agenda even before considering adoption, and this just further shows it to me. I totally agree that great care needs to be taken to ensure these orphans have every option to stay with any family they may have in Haiti or if a Haitian family can adopt them that should be the first choice and that the government of Haiti is the one to decide when, where and how it needs to work, BUT international adoption as “last resort”? HARDLY. These children are living in group orphanages, and now add the multitude of them living in tents with little food and water, not enough care givers, no education and limited opportunities. I am sorry, this seems the “last resort” to me. 🙁 And what happens to these children when the next “disaster” strikes and UNICEF moves???

    Hmm, a loving, forever family with a roof over their head, and more than enough food sounds does not sound like this “last resort” option they are referring to. Also if they even listen to the other experts, the majority of the child trafficing going on within Haiti has been related to slavery and sex, not adoption in almost all the cases.

    The part that does worry me though are those that in an effort to help may try to remove children from Haiti without going through the proper channels, which would be bad all around.

    Ok, off my soapbox now too 😉

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Lois, come on up. I don’t mind sharing my soapbox. I too worry that those who try to bend the rules in the name of doing good and “rescuing” children will play directly into the hands of those who lump adoption into the child trafficking camp.

  3. Avatar Dawn says:

    Pat, AMEN! I couldn’t agree with you more. It is clearly Haiti’s decision on how to structure their adoption system and on what restrictions to impose on adoptive parents. Child welfare experts can make suggestions based on research and common practice, but it is up to Haiti to decide. You are also right that to suggest otherwise smacks of condescending noblesse oblige. However, I don’t feel the same need for discretion when discussing UNICEF and what I perceive as their unbalanced approach to international adoption as one of many options that should be available to children without parents.

  4. Avatar Amy Heymann says:

    UNICEF also stopped adoption in Romania. The government didn’t have the resources to take care of the 1000’s of children in it’s over crowded system. BBC visited these children that continue to waste away in over crowded awful institutions. It is a crime what has become of these kids. They could have been raised in families but UNICEF discouraged International adoption.
    I read a blog post on the God’s Littlest Angels blog. They are in Haiti with a very large staff. They have sent most of their kids on to adoptive families in the USA & other nations. They do not understand why UNICEF is creating tent cities for the kids, when they have room to accept children?


    Amy Heymann
    in Germany

  5. Avatar Kristen says:

    Perfectly said, thank you! Was just writing my own rant about UNICEF and stumbled onto your blog.

  6. Avatar Lucy and Ricky says:

    This is the most balanced thing I’ve read on international adoption and how we should approach it. Thank you for not being either overly anti or overly pro.

  7. Avatar Synesthesia says:

    Your blog post is so sensible. If only UNICEF would take these things into consideration. A balance system that puts the child’s need in the forefront is what is needed not just in Haiti, but in the rest of the world too.
    It should definitely be about what is best for each individual child.

  8. Avatar Sara S. says:

    I’m sorry but those nut cases who were trying to kidnap those kids put all adoptions in a very bad light. Rich Americans just need to stay home. Send money if you want to, they could use it, but those kids aren’t ours.

  9. Avatar louis says:

    Great wise blog. Thank you.

  10. Avatar Ray G. says:

    I love you blog and this is an example of why. You bring a balanced approach to everything. I have had some huge problems with the “adoption community’s” failure to accept that there is big time corruption and fraud. UNICEF is trying to prevent this. Sometimes they step on toes. So be it. In this case, you gently pointed out that UNICEF too needs to be cautious of their words and their attitudes. There is enough blame to go around.

  11. Avatar H. S. says:

    The comment in the discussions is fascinating. I agree with Claire. I really agree with Dawn that we need a balance between protection and finding a real permanent home for children.

  12. Avatar Claire says:


    I did not say that adoptions should happen right now from Haiti. They shouldn’t, until there is process to ensure that children who are placed for adoption are true orphans who need home and there is government oversight.

    My point is that UNICEF’s vilification of international adoption and the use of these examples of criminal behavior as excuses to stop international adoptions altogether is not in the best interests of children who do not have families and homes.

  13. Avatar Remy says:

    This is the most even handed thing I’ve read, so thanks. I thought UNICEF would be a huge supporter of adoption of any sort )Haitian or foreign) since it gets children out of institutions. You make a good point about needing to go slow because of the potential for corruption, but not going too slow. I would hope that legal and non corrupt adoptions would start sometime in the future.

  14. Avatar Sandy says:


    Adoptions out of Haiti right now cannot happen…there has to be oversight and the Haitian government has the responsibility to ensure they protect their citizens as best they can during this crisis. They also have the right to determine the criteria for who they will accept as adoptive parents for their children. And international adoptions should be the last choice…why anyone would think differently is beyond comprehension.

    Would anyone of you be okay if a natural disaster happened in your area and before anyone knew it your kids were gone for good? Would you simply say thank to whoever took your kids for whatever reason?

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Sandy, you are so right that new adoptions from Haiti should be closed temporarily. Opening them now, would be unfair to Haiti, unfair to parents and extended families that might be looking for their kids, and most important, unfair to kids. We can support organizations that will care for these kids in the short term with our money.

  15. Avatar ray and bee says:

    Thanks for your even handed approach. I distrust much of what i think of as UNICEF bashing. Your respect for them as an organization that has a place and does good shines through. so does your frustration, but it is the frustration of someone who thinks they can do better and just fell short, rather than the frustration of someone who thinks they are evil.

  16. Avatar Claire says:


    These people should be punished. But using this as an excuse for stopping international adoption (as organizations who equate adoption with child trafficking do) is to harm children around the world who need homes and it is very very wrong. It is like saying that medicare should be discontinued because there is medicare fraud. You should punsih people when they violate the law, but this should have nothing to do with whether international adoption should be promoted.

  17. Avatar Sandy says:

    Wow – and not a single one can stand up and talk about fiasco that is happening right now in Haiti…Americans who decided to just go take a bunch of kids from Haiti – who cares if they are actually orphans and take them to the Dominican Republic and adopt them out from there…

    Stop bashing Unicef and put the blame where it belongs – the people from Idaha etc that had the gall to go and try to steal Haiti’s children for their own gain.

  18. Avatar sjbj says:

    There was a recent post on Guatadopt by a woman who runs an orphanage there. She mentioned how UNICEF is doing NOTHING to support orphanages or children left behind, after working so hard to oppose /close IA in Guatemala. They clearly have their own agenda, pursue that, and then move on.

  19. Avatar Cetho says:

    I shoud have added, I am an adoptive mother as well . . .

  20. Avatar Jennifer W says:

    This is why my Chinese daughters do not trick or treat for UNICEF. There are plenty of venues to assist children without supporting their implacable and irrational opposition to IA. They would rather condem children to a life in an institution with no hope (and no assitance from UNICEF either!)than admit that there is arole for IA. Lumping IA with sex trafficking is beyond the pale. Without IA my children would have faced a future of little or no education, job or marriage opportunties, and outright discrimination due to a visable special need – much better than a loving family according to UNICEF.

  21. Avatar Claire says:

    Elizabeth Bartholet has addressed all these arguments really well in a recent article (link below). The arguments of UNICEF and other such “child advocacy” organizations are misguded and harmful to children. Their agenda reminds me of that in the 70s that opposed placement of African Amertican children in white forster homes because this was termed “racial genocide.” Needless to say, those who were harmed by it were the children.

    I am attaching the link to Bartholet’s article below. Maybe you should have her on one of your shows 🙂


  22. Avatar Cetho says:

    Dawn, you are a smart lady and speak/think well and I ultimately agree with you. The quotes from UNICEF that you use here, however, don’t seem out of line to me. Child trafficing for the purpose of adoption does indeed happen, as you know, and yes, the children of Haiti are dangerously more vulnerable to it since the earthquake and as you said, all of us agree that new adoptions should be halted for this very reason. So what they said is basically true and fine by me (did I miss other statements they issued?). And I suspect that somebody traumatized as a result of adoption fraud would probably be outspoken against adoption in general (many of these folks speak of adoption as if it’s all about child trafficing–oh well, that’s there opinion). Anyway, that said, I have not been loving the way UNICEF speaks about adoption but I wonder why . . . what motivates their seemingly anti-adoption philosophy (indeed, are they anti-adoption?). Why? Maybe I kind of agree with them, yet as you said, what is this elusive “last resort” and maybe they really don’t think it ever comes to that for most . . .

  23. Avatar Noel says:

    As a new parent of my Haitian son, who we brought home yesterday, I am fuming over UNICEFS comments, as are many other adoptive parents. Because of the attention they have brought to this issue, and clouded the issues for those of us already in the process of adoption prior to the quake, we almost were unable to bring our son home – he just came into the US Friday. And unfortunately there are still 14 children who were unable to come due to some miscommunication over current finger prints. The more attention UNICEF gets, the harder it will be for those 14 to come home. And these are truly parents in the process of adoption prior to the quake. I, too, am supportive of the ban on adoption for NEW adoptions until a better plan can be put in place and time has passed for family reunification. But UNICEF has long clouded the issue – supporting only those they call “true” orphans – those whose both parents are dead. But even in the US, those “true” orphans are a minority of children being adopted. I do also want to point out though that good intentions aside, I have seen some shady things happening with people bringing home children – which has put those of us truly in the process in a difficult and frustrating spot.


  24. Pat and Dawn, I agree with most everything here. Your explanations and commentary are giving me a lot to think about and process. As always!

    However, I have to ask – isn’t one of the points of the Hague, et al to hold these nations to similar standards and practices and DEFINITIONS of these terms? Of the definition of “orphan” and the definition of “last resort?” I mean, why does UNICEF get to decide that long-term foster care or institutional care is a “step up” from int’l adoption as the “last resort?”

    At this point, I must admit, I find that to be an uncomfortable terminology, but I’m okay with my discomfort. I’m the adult in my adoption relationship. I’m just noting that I dislike a documented idea that I am a last resort for my daughter’s over all well-being. . .)

    All these Hague policies and US laws are aimed at the safety of the child and the integrity of an ethical adoption process, right? Internationally speaking.

    I still fail to see how UNICEF’s policies, interference, and politicking are aimed at protecting the children, complying with the existing laws AND accomplishing their own agenda . .

  25. I think we actually agree, Dawn (as we usually do). Of course kids grow better in families–permanent families. And of course this should happen as soon as possible. I don’t like the concept of foster care and extended revocation periods in newborn domestic adoption.

    But a point I don’t seem to be able to make clearly is tht in international adoption “we” (as in Americans in general, not just US child-welfare agencies and would-be adoptive parents)have no right to tell Haiti or any other country what is best for its children.

    Is this frustrating, given Haiti’s long history of extreme poverty and ineffective government? Of course it is! But that’s the way of world politics and government. Americans (well-meaning or not) thinking we know best how to deal with the problems of the world is one of the things that makes so many non-Americans hate this country that we Americans see as nothing more than big-hearted and generous spirited.

  26. Avatar Melissa says:

    “It’s fine for international adoptions to be the “last resort”, so long as we know when we’ve reached this resort.”

    I’m interested to know what others think are signs that we’ve reached the last resort, for us as potential adoptive parents and for the kids. To me, “last resort” for the kids means any chance to reunite a child with a loving, competent family member has failed and biological parents have either surrendered the child or the courts have severed their rights due to abuse, addiction, or unsafe environment.

    When is international adoption the ‘last resort’ for us as adoptive parents? When there is a national crisis and great need for loving parents that could speed along the process? We’ve tried to adopt here and have been denied by private agencies? We’ve had failed adoptions or watched foster children returned to their under-supported biological parents? When the cost of a private adoption is too much? (I know international adoptions are very costly, however some not as much as private adoptions here in the US.)

    My cousin is adopted from Bulgaria. He’s 8 now, was adopted by age 2. He spent his entire life in a crib in an orphanage. Luckily, he was the favorite of one of the workers and she spent a lot of time with him. My aunt had a organ transplant and my uncle is a police officer. No agency would work with them due to her health (which is fine, she walks 5 miles a day) and his risky line of work. They didn’t even get accepted by Child Services to be foster parents because there would be a gun in the house. I believe they were at a “last resort” situation.

  27. I understand that UNICEF’s size and stature in the world makes their very vocal stands cautioning that international adoption too often invites trafficking and that international adoption should be a choice of last resort is hard for adoptive parents to hear, but adoption as a last resort is the same viewpoint held statutorily in every U.S state and every developed country.

    The message at its core is that children have a right to their birth families, countries, culture, language and religion, etc. Adoption should not be about getting kids for parents, but should be the final solution in finding homes for kids who cannot remain with their birthparents, their extended birth families, or people within their own community/country of origin.

    Additionally, as would-be adopting parents, we need to remember that children are not “ours” at referral or match or placement. They are “ours” when the legal process is finalized. In international adoption we can be too critical of another goverment’s process for making certain that children actually “need” to be adopted. If we cannot respect a country’s right and responsibility to do this, how can we teach our children to be respectful of their own heritage.

    The are hard truths, but the real truths.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I think the crux of the matter, for me at least, is how we define “last resort”. Pat, you are right that that is at the heart of US adoption law and also the Hague Treaty on Intercountry Adoption. Unfortunately, there seems to be a difference of opinion within child welfare organizations of when we have reached the point of considering the last resort in terms of time and available in-country options.

      I believe that it is in the best interest of children to have permanency sooner in their childhood rather than later. We have to balance this desire, however, with giving biological families and in-country adoptive families a chance. I can see wisdom in a range of time frames, but think anything over two years is excessive. Another point of dispute is whether in-country foster homes are preferable to out of country adoptive homes. I come down squarely in favor of adoptive families over long term non biological foster families, and I think this position is supported by most research. Both of these points are areas of disagreement with UNICEF.

  28. One more thing: I actually guffawed OUT LOUD last night when one report on the nightly news made a big deal out of the “strict rules” of the Haitian adoption program. With no mention of the long, dragged out process that freezes up at random moments that weighs so heavily on Adoptive parents and their waiting children. . . . and seems so arbitrary in its process.

  29. The more I learn about UNICEF’s political agendas and long-held stances on international adoption, the less I like them. I’m frustrated that they are wielding political power to the most vulnerable of nations and most vulnerable of people right now. I’m angered that it’s all in the name of social justice.

    Basically, their stance is that culture/birth place is a superior choice to stable, loving home environments – even if that means staying in an institution. Forgive me if this oversimplifies the issue but to me, that’s the bottom line of what they are saying in their statements about IA (policy statements made long before the earthquake). It seems to fly in the face of countless other studies that say differently about the health and development of the WHOLE child?

    I’m stopping now. This is a huge issue and I am still processing all I’m taking in . . .

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