Haiti's orphan adoption debate

The plight of orphaned children in earthquake-hit Haiti has led to calls for international adoption processes to be speeded up.

But it has also raised the question of whether taking children away from their homeland, even in extreme or impoverished conditions, is the right solution.

By Jacquline Head

January 21, 2010 / aljazeera.net

In a country where tens of thousands have been killed and an estimated 500,000 left destitute by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the notion of sending children to countries where they will receive care, food and water appears on the surface a logical one.

This, especially when Haiti's history of poverty, social unrest and political instability is added into the mix.

For example, reacting to the humanitarian crisis, the Dutch government fast-tracked the adoption of 109 children already involved in the process before the quake struck, who arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday.

Letje Vermunt, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands Adoption Foundation, one of the agencies involved, said the decision was made because of the "very high risk of death considering the situation in Haiti now".

A day earlier, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, pledged that Washington would speed up American adoptions of Haitian children already under way before last week's catastrophe.

Thousands of orphans

Dixie Bickel, director of God's Little Angels, an adoption agency in Haiti, is hoping plans like these will help alleviate the situation.

"We who are doing adoptions are trying to get those children to their adoptive families so they can be safe and have food and water and medicine, and that will also free up our beds for orphans created by earthquake," she said. 

Bickel said the devastation wreaked by the earthquake could leave thousands of orphans on Haiti's streets, adding to an already severe problem.  

"Haiti had about 50,000 orphans before the earthquake - that's the number that is being reported. We don't know how many actually because there are a number of orphanages not listed," she said.

"Everytime we have a large aftershock new buildings fall down so it's very hard how many orphans we're going to have."

But there is some concern that knee-jerk reactions to the crisis could break up families and have damaging psychological effects on children rushed out of the country.

Kathie Neal, development director of SOS children, the world's largest orphan charity, said any action has to be in the best interests of the child.

She cited the position taken by Unicef, which states that family tracing should be the priority for children separated from their parents and communities during war or natural disaster, rather than inter-country adoption.

"The most critical thing is that you don't take children away from their families - we may not know for several months if these children have families, it may even take a year," she said.

"Traumatised children need familiarity and consistency. And if you pluck them out of all that's familiar to them ... then it's not an improvement to their psyche."

'Clearing houses'

Neal's position is taken a step further by Roelie Post, from Against Child Trafficking, an NGO based in Brussels opposed to international adoption. 

She said a report by Unicef in 2005 found the Haitian adoption system to be "untransparent".  

"The issue at stake is that Haiti has for a long time been known as a country with not a good adoption procedure," Post said.

"Orphanages are clearing houses in Haiti. As soon as the children enter the home, they are signed up to an international adoption agency. This means that the parents, if they are alive and they want them back, cannot get them back."

Post said there was a different understanding in Haiti of what adoption really means.

"In the Western world you get a new birth certificate, with the names of the adoptive parents. There's no legal link with the [biological] family," she said.

"The system in Haiti is more like foster care and the family link remains. And the people in Haiti in do not know what international adoption really means."

Parents believe they will still be able to be reunited with their children, Post said.

'Stolen children'

God's Little Angels' Bickel, whose interview with Al Jazeera was cut short by another aftershock, said parents coming to her agencies are told what their decision will mean, and that they are given the option to change their minds.

She suggested that there may be some illicit orphanages, but said hers followed transparent legal procedues.

However, the reality on the ground, she said, pointing to the fact that many families existing on less than a dollar a day, could lead to families to make difficult decisions.

"I've been approached by families in our area who don't have enough food or clean water to drink. I've been approached by doctors who are asking me to take children and I can't do that until I clear some beds out," she said. 

Bickel said she hates the idea of having "stolen children" - those still with family members alive - being adopted out. And, she said, most adoptive parents would not want these children either.

Neal agreed that there is a time and a place for international adoption.

"There are millions of orphans in the world and we can't look after all of them. So I cannot possibly condemn the opportunity for some of these to go to a loving home," she said.

"There will be examples where older children who know what's happening and wish to be able to go someplace else, and that's totally different."

But Neal said the focus should be on supporting the community and helping people become self sufficient to "create a better future for everyone". 

Using international aid efforts to build stronger communities is also an idea endorsed by Post.

"Children are the future of a country and so we should help these countries to develop and help children to remain in their own country," she said


EU urged to fast-track adoptions from Haiti: Spanish presidency

22 January 2010, 16:27 CET

(MADRID) - The Spanish presidency of the European Union will next week urge the bloc to forge a common position on fast-track adoptions from Haiti, Madrid said Friday.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos "will on Monday propose to the council (of EU foreign ministers) that there could be a joint common response," Spain's Vice-President Maria-Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said.

She said the aims included "speeding up procedures for adoption cases already under way at the various missions," and "reinforcing aid and international protection for isolated minors travelling alone or orphans," in conjunction with the UN children's agency and the Red Cross.
The vice-president also told a cabinet meeting that the third objective was to "buttress action ...in Haiti to ensure the protection of minors," adding: "We hope it will get the backing of the 27" nations comprising the bloc.

Several countries are fast-tracking adoption procedures already under way, including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States.
The January 12 earthquake in Haiti killed at least 75,000 people and left more than a million homeless living in streets, parks and makeshift tented encampments.
Fernandez de la Vega said there had been several applications for adoptions from Haiti in Spain since the quake.
On Friday, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said several children had gone missing from hospitals in Haiti since the quake struck, raising fears of trafficking for adoption abroad.

"We have documented let's say around 15 cases of children disappearing from hospitals and not with their own family at the time," said UNICEF adviser Jean Luc Legrand in Geneva.

"UNICEF has been working in Haiti for many years and we knew the problem with the trade of children in Haiti which existed already beforehand, and unfortunately many of these trade networks have links with the international adoption 'market'," Legrand said.

The agency underlined that it had warned countries during the past week not to step up adoptions from Haiti in the aftermath of the quake.
Legrand said trafficking networks had sprung into action immediately after the disaster "to kidnap children and get them out of the country."

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What, do they need THAT many more house servants?


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