Children of the Earthquake: Rescuing Haiti’s Orphans?

By Michelle Chen Jan 27, 2010

The Haitian diaspora has always been fractured by definition, with tough kinship ties stretched across oceans in a network of interwoven communities. Now that the earthquake has shaken up borders and geopolitical barriers, no one is quite sure how to help the orphaned and dislocated children left in the disaster’s wake. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Haitian government has put a freeze on the removal of orphans out of concern that the adoption process would be rushed or exploited in the wake of the crisis. The children left without families after the quake will add to an estimated population of about 380,000 prior to the disaster. That includes children whose parents were really dead, along with many whose families were too poor or otherwise incapable of caring for them. Aid agencies fear for the fate of newly dislocated children as people of all ages stream into cramped refugee encampments. The temporary halt to the departures of orphans seems to be a reaction to the "humanitarian parole" policy the U.S. launched last week to facilitate the transfer of some adoptees. According to the Journal, the U.S. government is negotiating to resume departures as soon as possible. In the meantime, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and other lawmakers are trying to push through the Families for Orphans Act to promote "efficient" adoption. The urgency surrounding the removal of orphans feels suspiciously hasty to Haitian officials and other critics, the same way the agonizingly slow trickle of aid into the country has raised questions about which organizations really have the people’s interest at heart:

The Haitian government is concerned that some children are being removed from the country without proper oversight and risk winding up in the hands of child traffickers. Other children might be removed even though they may still have relatives in the country who could care for them. "There is evidence that children have been removed from Haiti with no due process at all," said Diana Boni, Haiti adoption coordinator for Kentucky Adoption Services, a non-profit adoption agency in Owensburo, Ky. "The Haitian government in the past has looked over the paperwork of each child leaving the country with adoptive parents."

International adoption, as well as cross-racial adoption, are intensely polarizing issues that raise questions of sovereignty, cultural identity and human rights. Last year, the immigrant community was shaken by reports that children of undocumented parents were being shunted into the child welfare system, and perhaps turned into virtual orphans at the hands of immigration judges with the power to split families through deportation. While perhaps rooted in good motives, the new eagerness to give Haitian kids American homes contrasts strikingly with the government’s usual willingness to sever parent-child bonds in order to enforce inhumane immigration laws (poignantly demonstrated in the case of Haitian-American community activist and almost-deportee Jean Montrevil). Both critics and supporters may be guilty of prioritizing politics over individual children’s welfare, but when a country is crippled by disaster, children will inevitably be pulled toward the institutions with the resources and political clout to assume the role of savior. Throughout the history of the modern child welfare system, children of color have been systematically separated from their communities and placed in homes that more closely fit the constructed ideal of a white nuclear family. That said, countless children will likely be placed in adoptive homes as the situation in Haiti grows more desperate. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which worked on child-protection issues facing survivors of the South Asian tsunami, provides guidelines for dealing with post-disaster adoption across national and ethnic divides. First, the group points out that, in accordance with international humanitarian law, aid agencies must provide for children’s basic needs for food and medicine and protect them from exploitation and trafficking. From there, it gets more complicated:

Family Tracing and Reunification Children who are unaccompanied or separated from primary caregivers as the result of an emergency may not necessarily be orphans; thus, an effort to trace family members is vital. The Hague Convention requires that eligibility for adoption be determined by competent authorities. In the aftermath of an emergency, governments may not be able to ensure that appropriate consents for relinquishments for adoption are carried out or that a child is truly orphaned. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stipulates two years as a “reasonable period” to trace parents or other surviving family members (UNHCR, 1995). Family and Community Solutions Even during emergencies, institutions should be viewed as a last resort, and should be used only when children genuinely have no one to take care of them. Residential institutions rarely provide the care necessary for normative child development or protection. Although some institutions will be necessary to care for children’s immediate needs, they should be used with the clear objective of providing temporary services while reunification or alternative community and family based care is obtained. Widespread Trauma Particularly during an emergency, it is necessary to address the widespread trauma caused by witnessing or directly experiencing brutal events. All children who have experienced trauma are vulnerable, but for children separated from their families, there is additional critical loss. The best way to help a child mitigate the effects of trauma is to restore a sense of normalcy by providing structured activities, care and nurturing. Children who have experienced traumatic events, at least in the short term, generally should not be further uprooted and placed in new environments. Respect for Nation, Culture and Religion Even though some children may be identified as parentless, there are countries that do not recognize adoption – for instance because of the Islamic Shaaria law. Moreover, the right of a child to be raised in his or her family of origin is stipulated in Article 17 of the UN Declaration, Article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and in the preamble of the Hague Convention. Article 16 of the Hague Convention requires that due consideration be given to “the child’s upbringing and his or her ethnic, religious and cultural background.”

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Institute, told the Miami Herald, “We need to take a step back and be really careful… We don’t want to make mistakes with kids’ lives. Everything has been tough enough. You don’t want to add more injuries to the ones they have already sustained — even with good intentions.” Unfortunately, humanitarian efforts seem to be hurting as well as helping, to varying degrees. As Haiti becomes militarized by foreign humanitarian missions, refugee camps swell with despair, and an already devastated population looks ahead to more waves of death, sickness and trauma–Haiti’s children are fast becoming a new object for the good intentions of powerful people, all seeking to fix a forsaken country. And even the purest intentions won’t alter the inequity inherent in that relationship.