haitian orphans
What is the status of Haiti’s orphans after the devastating earthquake?

Our show this past week (July  14, 2010) was on what is happening to the children of Haiti six months after the earthquake that devastated that country and killed 230,000 to 300,000, injured approximately 350,000, and left 1.6 million people homeless.  Our guests were Dixie Bickel, with God’s Littlest Angels, an orphanage in Haiti, and Rebecca Hackworth, Haiti Program Director for Dillon International Adoption Agency and President of the US Foundation for the Children of Haiti.  It was fascinating, if not optimistic, show.

Before the quake

I think it’s important to view what is currently happening to the children of Haiti against the backdrop of their lives pre-quake.  Of course, the majority of Haitian kids were being raised by their families, just the same as in the rest of the world.  However, a disproportionate number of Haitian children were living outside of their families.  Pre-earthquake Haiti had 50,000 children in registered orphanages and another 50,000 in unregistered orphanages.  UNICEF estimates that prior to the earthquake, one out of every 10 Haitian child (some 400,000 kids) lived outside of their family.

Many of these children were not legally free for domestic or international adoption.  Despite the media attention, international adoptions played a very minor role in the Haitian child welfare system.  In 2009, only 330 Haitian children were adopted by American, and 301 were adopted in 2008.  Other countries also adopt from Haiti, but in total, no more than about 1,500 are adopted abroad each year.

The grim reality: sexual and domestic slavery

Child trafficking for sexual and domestic slavery played a much bigger role in the lives of parentless kids in Haiti pre-earthquake.  An estimated 2,000 children per year are sold for domestic service primarily to wealthy families in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  This number is a guesstimate and is likely higher.  Aid groups estimate about 300,000 Haitian kids under that age of 18 are currently working as domestic servants.  In addition, an untold number of Haitian children are sold into prostitution.  In fairness, many families that “sold” or sent their children to work as domestic help would disagree with characterizing this act as child trafficking or selling into domestic slavery, but the future for these children was dismal by most standards.  By all accounts, Haiti also had a long standing acceptance of placing children in institutional care as a temporary solution to poverty, divorce, or just general family dysfunction.  (See my previous post on this subject.)

How many earthquake orphans are there?

I haven’t been able to find reliable estimates on how many children were orphaned in the quake through the death of their parents or how many families were left unable to care for their children because of earthquake induced poverty, loss of a family residence, or just general overwhelming stress brought on by the earthquake. Most experts believe the number will be very large, but almost impossible to calculate right now.  Dixie Bickel told of an orphanage in southern Haiti that had 150 children pre-quake and now is home to 700.  I am not hearing of a huge increase of children in the orphanages I have spoken with, but that may be because they are limited in space or are only accepting children that have relinquishment paperwork, which rules out most kids that were truly orphaned in the earthquake.  I can’t get a good answer about what is happening to these earthquake orphans.  Many have been taken in by extended family or neighbors, some are living in UNICEF and other NGO tents, orphanages have absorbed some, and sadly, experts acknowledge, many are living in the streets.

One of UNICEF’s missions in Haiti is to register the children orphaned in the earthquake. According to our guests, approximately 2,500 children have been registered so far.  Registration is painstakingly slow because before a child is classified as an earthquake orphan, UNICEF is trying to find any extended family members willing to raise the child.  Save the Children told Dixie that this process could take 4 to 5 years.   Due to the limited ability of children, especially young children, to remember details over time, there is a relatively small window to find extended family.  Young children will not remember for long the names of their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, much less the name of their school, church, teachers, or neighbors.

Changes to the Haitian adoption system

Prior to the earthquake Haitian adoptions were long and complicated.  The Haitian adoption law, written in 1974, requires adoptive parents to be married for 10 years and childless, or be a single woman and childless.   Strict enforcement of this law has varied over the years.  Prior to the quake, it was possible to get a Presidential Waiver of the 10 year marriage or childless status.  This waiver process added time, sometime lots of time, to the process.  For families that met the strict parental requirements, it was not unusual for a Haitian adoption to take 2 – 2 ½ years prior to the quake.  For families that did not meet the strict requirements it took even longer.

A new adoption law was proposed three years ago that would lessen the parental marriage, age, and childless requirements.  This bill is still pending.  It may come up for a vote this Fall, but most experts I’ve spoken with think this is unlikely.  It’s also important to note that many adoption proponents are not sure that this new law will improve adoptions.  Although more potential families will be eligible, it also centralizes the adoption process.  Right now, adoption agencies work directly with the orphanage in Haiti to place children. Under the proposed law, agencies would be required to work through the Institut du Bien Etre Sociale et de Recherches (IBESR), the Haitian international adoption authority.  In theory, this centralized adoption system is an improvement and lessens the likelihood for corruption, but in practice, many fear that it would be a nightmare in Haiti.  The IBESR has responsibility for all child welfare in Haiti. Processing international adoptions is only a very small part of what they do.  In the past they have been notoriously slow and disorganized; the increased work and diminished staff caused by the earthquake is not likely to improve their speed or efficiency.

Who is eligible for adoption?

There are two general groups of children that could be eligible for international adoption.  Most people think of the children that were orphaned by the earthquake.  Clearly there will be many children who lost both parents and have no living family members able to care for them.  As much as we might want to rush in and rescue these children, we need to give the child welfare NGOs and the Haitian government more time to find family and to set up a procedure for determining orphan status.  I don’t agree with Save the Children that 4-5 years is reasonable, but clearly we need more than 6 months.

However, there is another group of children that should be considered for adoption.  Prior to the earthquake, many many children were eligible for adoption and living in orphanages.   Of course, not all children in institutionalized care both before and after the quake are available for adoption. Many orphanages take in children on a temporary basis to allow parents to find work, food, and a place to live.  Every effort should be made to help families stay together, and a temporary respite in the storm can be just what is needed.  However, some of these children had already been declared available for adoption prior to the quake.

The IBESR has announced that they are now accepting adoption paperwork from prospective adoptive parents; however, no one that I’ve spoken with has seen any movement on this paperwork.  Many governmental offices were destroyed in the quake and many civil servants lost their lives.  For adoptive parents that meet the letter of the 1974 adoption law, I anticipate that the adoption process will proceed slower than pre-earthquake, which means that it will likely take over 2 ½ years—maybe much longer.  All bets are off on what will happen to families that have existing children or have not been married 10 years.  No one knows when or if the Office of the President will start issuing waivers for these adoptive parents.  Arguably, both the IBSER and the Office of the President have bigger and more immediate issues to address.

I’m sorry I couldn’t write a more optimistic report on the status of Haitian adoptions.  I struggle with trying to decide what is best.  I believe that all children deserve a family.  I also believe that Haiti desperately needs to implement a better overall child welfare system, including greater services for family preservation.  Giving up your children should be the last resort for poor parents or dysfunctional parents.  Does international adoption draw necessary money and attention away from these efforts?  Not necessarily, but in Haiti, maybe.  But what happens to the children who need families now?

For more information on Adopting from Haiti, keep checking our Haitian Adoption Country Chart.

Image credit:  malloreigh