Haiti: Why All The Stories About Orphans?

A month after a seven-point earthquake destroyed much of southern Haiti, the fate of children, and particularly orphans, has become the main story in many corners. But Haitian voices on the topic have been few.

In this long video report posted at Telegraph21, recorded in the days immediately following the quake, managers of two Haitian orphanages speak to the issue in two drastically different ways. At minute 2:30, the manager of an orphanage in an unnamed location in Haiti expresses frustration at the sudden interest in Haitian children, where before there was less concern. Inquiries from foreign families seeking to adopt have become daily. “I don't even reply,” she says. “Everybody listen, I don't want to receive post-catastrophe requests.”

A counterpart identified as Ledice, however, who cares for sixty children in a different facility, calls for relocating kids faster, and cites a lack of government services to approve adoptions, even those underway before the disaster. “Now it's a humanitarian cause,”  she says. “Let's take the kids. We'll see the papers later.”

Much of the recent focus on kids, both mainstream and not, comes from the widely-publicized case of an American church group arrested last week while trying to bring thirty-three kids from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. But a broader debate  is also underway.

Conducive, a group blog that frequently debates international adoption, notes that previous rushes to adopt children out of crisis went awry:

Removing children during times of disaster is not new. We saw this with Operation Babylift after the Vietnam War, where the American government hurriedly removed almost 3,000 children from their homeland during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Lawsuits between birth parents and adopted parents tied up U.S. courts for years. Birth parents claimed they never consented to the adoption, and adoptive parents claimed the adoption was legitimate. Critical adoption theorists are seeing parallels with the current rushed adoption of Haitian children.

In a post titled Orphans, Orphans, Orphans!, ResistRacism is more specific:

How many prospective adoptive parents have been trained in cross cultural and transracial adoption issues?  (The same parent referenced above [in the post] wonders about black hair care.  Now that she’s receiving the child.  Do you think she thought about other issues of race and culture?)  (Don’t even get me started about trauma issues.  That’s too big to even cover.  But I’m of the opinion that the average individual isn’t equipped to handle extensive trauma in a child.)

Why aren’t agencies soliciting prospective parents of Haitian descent?  Folks with experience treating trauma?

The same post suggests a more creative solution.

Here’s a radical thought:  If some of those “orphans” were relinquished for adoption because their parents could not keep them, how about we airlift entire families from Haiti to the U.S.?  If you’re seriously talking about the welfare of the child, isn’t it best for the family to remain together? But that wouldn’t serve the needs of those other families. You know, those good families who wish to save the orphans.

Renewed attention to Haiti's Restavec (sometimes Restavek) system has also become an issue. In a post from before the quake, Repeating Islands says the system, “through which parents unable to support their children send them to live with more affluent relatives or strangers for whom they receive food, shelter and education in return for work” has become tantamount to slavery. She quotes a United Nations investigator who visited Haiti last year to investigate the Restivek issue, saying

…Although placement with children with other family members has long been a practice in Haiti, nowadays ‘paid recruiters scour the country looking for children to traffic both within and outside Haiti. This practice is a severe violation of the most fundamental rights of the child.’

Most international agencies involved in crisis childcare have, in the past two weeks, stated opposition to rapid adoptions in Haiti. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in a statement presented as an interview with one of its child protection officers, said it believed efforts to connect children with family members in Haiti should receive priority, and adoption a last resort.

…In situations where a child is evacuated, there are clear procedures to follow: the child should be accompanied by a relative or someone who knows them, if possible; the details of the child must be registered and their family must know where the child is taken to and by whom. Unfortunately some children were evacuated in haste without all their details being recorded.

Aid groups including Save the Children, World Vision and the Red Cross Disaster Fund (which is separate from the International Committee), issued a joint statement also opposing evacuations and adoptions. So did UNICEF.

So what's the controversy? The case of the children stopped at the border involved a Protestant church adoption group, some of which have advocated international adoption as a means of spreading their own religious views. Other evangelist Christian blogs are more careful. Christianity Today, “A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction” opposed quick international adoptions:

In the initial months after an incident like this, we don't want to move children away from the area where family members are searching for them. After the Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, there were many small kids virtually unidentifiable, and yet a very high percentage of those children, thanks to DNA testing and other methods, were eventually returned to family members.


  • Nguyễn Sinh Cung

    This is an interesting, well thought out and balanced analysis of this debate.

    To those of us outside the developed world, the pro- and anti- adoption argument looks very like an American cultural dispute.

    Unfortunately none of the arguments on either side of that dispute would make much sense to a subsistance farmer in South China who knows he and his wife must produce 3 male children in order to guarantee one will survive childhood illness to look after them in their old age. Girls are ‘maggots in the rice’ as they will join their husbands family. Distasteful as Europeans find this, a peasant families needs to practice post-natal birth control either through adoption, institutions, fostering or a ‘restavek’ system (which is not limited to Haiti by the way) is a matter of fact – not a moral choice.

    Unfortunately the ‘personal is political people’ have got it wrong. Tighter regulation of adoption and donor pressure on third world states to pass aspirational laws on child welfare won’t alter the basic economics that makes the peasant farmer behave as he does. We must make the economics work for that peasant farmer – the first thing to do is to stop robbing him.

    The French and US governments could start by paying war reparations to the people of Haiti and pay back what they stole by force.

    Chúc mừng năm mới!


  • Great post, Marc. You really do a great job of teasing out some of the conflicts involved in this issue. Adoption is such a tricky subject — even when no issues of race, nationality, or trauma are involved. And it’s so easy to be seduced by the narrative of poor children finding a better life with generous families, that we too often overlook the complexities that are almost always involved. Clearly the situation in Haiti is no exception. Anyway, wonderful post! It was very informative.

  • […] blog post was originally published at Global Voices on February 11, 2010. SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Haiti: Why all the stories about orphans?", […]

  • Sandy

    My hubby and I are Haitians… we want to adopt badly and have been looking into a baby gira in Haiti…spoke with orphenage on the January 11 and quake happened the next day so din’t get to start paper work. Now, we still don’t know if the infant is alive as she was living with her mother who wanted to give her up for adoption. It brakes my heart to see kids suffering like this when we can relate to them and offer them a better life. Can someone do something to help us out.
    Marc, can you help out in any way… how do we get in touch with these orphenages that need to have the children removed from this horrific situation? Please somebody help!

  • Stop robbing the peasant farmers of Haiti, yes! France and US pay Haiti reparations, yes! And when good people want to adopt an orphaned child anywhere, let that happen too. How can we not?

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