By Jacqueline Head, 2010-01-21
It is not known how many children have been orphaned by the earthquake [GALLO/GETTY]
The plight of orphaned children in earthquake-hit Haiti has led to calls for international adoption processes to be sped 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.
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.
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 Littlest 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.
“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”
God’s Littlest Angels
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.”
She added that while following proper adoptive procedures was a better course of action, fast-tracking children through could still lead to problems.
Nine of the children arriving in the Netherlands, for example, will be sent to foster homes while the parent-matching process continued.
Neal said moves like these could increase the childrens’ isolation.
“If they’re going through a good process then I’m in favour but pre-empting is not the answer.
“It’s better for them [the children] to be with other orphans with a shared experience. Parents who don’t know this and haven’t been trained in psychological care will face a huge challenge.”
Neal’s position is taken a step further by Roelie Post, of Against Child Trafficking, an NGO based in Brussels sceptical of international adoption.
“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”
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.
God’s Littlest 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.
“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”
Against Child Trafficking
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,” Neal said.
But, she insists, the focus should still be on supporting families, the community and helping people become self sufficient.
“We help support the community by setting up schools and childcare so parents can go out to work. We provide vocational training.
“The more self sufficient the family is the more self sufficient the community becomes. And that’s got to bode for a bettter 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.