Children of the Earthquake: Rescuing Haiti's Orphans?

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

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

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,

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

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

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.

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