Haiti: Adoptions and Orphans
The situation in Haiti is complex. How do we help the children there?

I wasn’t going to blog about Haitian orphans again. Really, I wasn’t.  I figured I had worn my audience thin on the subject; it was time to move on.  My resolve wavered, but held firm even when last Friday’s mail brought Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal both running stories on the “Haitian orphan crisis”.  But after reading both articles I couldn’t get them out of my mind, try as I might.  Oh, what the heck, as long as I’m obsessing on this subject, why should I suffer alone.

The situation in Haiti is complex, to say the least.  A natural instinct when faced with complexity is to simplify by assigning black and white hats to the players in order to keep them straight.  But the $64 Million question is who should wear the black hat?  UNICEF?  International adoption proponents?  Orphanage directors?  For better or worse, the situation in Haiti defies simplification and easy categorization.

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.

I have been following bickering between the various non governmental organizations in Haiti, trying to understand the underlying cause.  Conflict seems to exist between UNICEF and Save the Children on one side and all other child welfare NGOs on the other.  Disagreement also seems to exist between the long standing charitable organization that have been working in Haiti for a long time and those that have come in after the earthquake.  I should be very clear that I have no first hand information on what is happening on the ground.  I am reading everything I can and talking with people who are there, but my information is exclusively second hand.

As you know from previous blogs, I have been critical of UNICEF’s public pronouncements on adoption.  I think their earlier statements served to create unnecessary divisions in the international child welfare community.  Their concerns, however, about the potential for international adoption to be used to the detriment of Haitian children in not all together misplaced.

The Haitian culture has historically “accepted” placing children in institutions. This same cultural acceptance exists in certain Eastern European and African countries as well.  UNICEF estimates that prior to the earthquake, one out of every 10 Haitian child (some 400,000 kids) lived outside of their family.  No doubt this number is growing exponentially after the quake.  I struggle with being culturally sensitive to this practice since all research points to its destructive affect on children.  The fate of these children is not good.

The WSJ article stated that UNICEF was eager “to wean Haiti off its adoption system.” Prior to the earthquake, however, international adoption (mostly to the US, France, and the Netherlands) was the reality for only about 1,500 Haitian children each year.  The antiquated Haitian adoption laws have done the weaning for UNICEF.  The 10 year marriage and childless status requirements have guaranteed that most Haitian orphans will never be adopted, and most of those that are adopted will have spent years waiting.

Rather than worrying about adoption, it seems far better to wean Haiti off it system of selling kids.  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.  The rest of the 400,000 parentless children spend their lives on the street or in the approximately 177 governmental orphanages and 200+ orphanages run by non governmental organizations.  Some of these orphanages are funded by foreign relief groups and provided plenty of adult caregivers, well stocked pantries, and an education.  The majority are not.

What is clear is that there is no shortage of Haitian parents who are willing to “give away” their kids.  A French government representative commented on this phenomenon:  “Something [in Haiti] isn’t morally correct.”  This statement shows a lack of understanding of the effect of generations of poverty.  Many desperately poor parents know they have little to offer their children in the way of food, clothing and education.  They dream, just like all parents, of a better life for their child.  Giving a child away may well seem like the best way to secure this better life.  In some cases they view this as a temporary solution.  In some cases, they maintain contact with the child.  However, it doesn’t help to sanctify all parents who place their kids in orphanages or give them to strangers.  Addictions, mental illness, adultery, incarceration, and abandonment exist in Haiti, as they do throughout the world.  All countries have their share of lousy parents.

The media coverage of Haiti has highlighted the confusion over the term “orphan” because the common definition differs from the legal definition.  Most people think of an orphan as a child with no living parents.  While that child is indeed an orphan, she is seldom available for adoption in any country.  In most functioning families, relatives step forward to raise their own when tragedy strikes.  Almost none of the domestic adoptions in the US and very few of the international adoptions of children to the US involve children with no living parents.  The vast majority of adoptions are of children whose parents are unable or unwilling to raise them.  The parent may realize that they aren’t ready to parent and know someone else would do a better job; the parent may be too poor to provide for the number of children that they have; the parent may be addicted to drugs or alcohol; the parent may be married to an abusive spouse and can’t provide for their child as a single parent; or the parent may have remarried and the new spouse doesn’t want to raise the children of the previous marriage.  There are as many reasons as there are children, but from the child’s perspective it doesn’t much matter—they are “orphaned” all the same.  US and international law reflects this reality.

Natural disasters or war can change this paradigm.  Some of the children wandering the streets alone or living in the UNICEF and Save the Children tent shelters may have no living parents.  But chances are good that even if their parents are dead, they have extended family.  We need to make sure that our good intentions to help these children don’t undermine what is truly in their best interest.  I’ve had my beef with UNICEF, but they are taking steps to prevent children from being needlessly removed from their community and relatives.

UNICEF is actively registering unaccompanied children and providing shelter and food.  The children are interviewed to find the name of aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  If these relatives can be found, they are asked to take in these children.  The most important part of the reunification project is that UNICEF and other NGOs are supposedly offering long term financial support for these newly formed families. This is a phenomenal idea and bound to result in more extended families stepping forward.  I certainly hope that UNICEF will continue to support these families for the long run, not just for this year.

I am assuming that UNICEF is hesitant to place these children in some of the existing orphanages because they aren’t certain of their quality and intentions. (Check out God’s Littlest Angels blog and the Livestay Family blog )  Good orphanages exist in Haiti, but plenty of sleazy ones exist as well.  I also wonder if UNICEF is concerned that even the better orphanages should be avoided because they may not support family reunification as the first option.  This seems a bit paranoid to me.  If the orphanage is located in the same area as the child lives, surely the good can be separated from the bad.  Proper safeguards could be set up that allow time for families to find each other and be reunited. In the meantime, the children would be cared for by experienced staff and the cost of caring for these children could be shared with other NGOs.

As much as I applaud UNICEFs efforts to reunify families, I firmly believe that a time limit must be set for the reunification process.  I acknowledge that this process is man power intensive and time consuming.  After the 2004 tsunami, these efforts took five months in the hardest hit areas.  This certainly seems like a reasonable time frame.  Given the chaos in Haiti, I would be willing to give them at least six to eight months.   At some point, however, parentless children will remain, and the final step must be finding a permanent family for these children.  For many, this permanence will be an institution in Haiti, and we need to double our support for these orphanages.  For some, international adoption should be the solution.

It’s easy to lay out a step by step plan, but the devil is in the details.  It seems that in Haiti, the more orphanages that are built, the more children that will come. The very existence of the institution serves to pull the children away from their families.  Although it may be understandable that very poor parents think that someone else can care for their child better than them, it is not in the best interest of the child.

The conundrum is how to care for children when parents aren’t able or willing, but at the same time discourage other parents from abandoning their children.  There are no easy solutions for Haiti.  But in the face of such overwhelming complexity, I can only revert back to the basics.  This much I know:

  • If at all possible, children need to stay within their families. Our first priority should be to support families.
  • If children can’t live with their parents they should be placed in nearby institutions.  These institutions should make all efforts to keep parents involved in their children’s lives through weekend and holiday visits, conferencing about big decisions, etc.  Tent shelters are not a permanent solution.
  • If parents aren’t able or willing to be involved on a significant level with their children, then all efforts should be made to find a permanent family for this child, first in Haiti and then anywhere else.  Parents should have a firm time limit on how long they have to get and stay involved before adoption is sought.
  • Haitian adoption laws should be rewritten to prioritize finding homes for children.  There simply are not that many childless couples that have been married for 10 years that are going to step forward to adopt older traumatized institutionalized kids.  Experienced parents may well be the best fit for many of these kids.
  • No matter what changes are made to the Haitian adoption laws, international adoption will be the solution for only a very small percentage of the Haitian children without parents.  Much thought and cooperation between the NGOs with long standing operations in Haiti, UNICEF, Save the Children, and others will be needed to strike the balance between providing for children without encouraging abandonment.  The “us vs. them” attitude described by those on the ground is not helpful.

I want to believe that what is best for children is crystal clear, but it’s seldom that easy, and in Haiti it’s never that easy.  Yes, I’m tired of being consumed with thoughts of Haiti.  I can only imagine how tired the Haitian people are.  The difference is that I have the luxury of moving on; they don’t.

P.S. I am not in Haiti so must rely on what I read and what I’m told.  I know that some of the readers of this blog have first hand knowledge, and I’m hoping they will share what they know.  In the meantime, the WSJ article was the best analysis I’ve seen in the popular press about what is really happening with children in Haiti—now and in the past. Also, NPR Morning Edition aired a very touching story on this subject the same day I posted this blog.

Image credit: UNICEF Canada