Heartbreaking stories of homeless Haitian children are everywhere. Headlines tell us of school kids who have yet to find their parents. Videos show food lines bulging with tiny bodies pressed together so tightly you worry as much about suffocation as starvation. And then there are the photographs: toddlers, teenagers, preschoolers—all caked in dirt, their eyes wide and dazed with trauma.
Before the January 12 earthquake, the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) received five Haiti-related adoption inquiries a week. That number has surged to more than 150 phone calls a day. I’m an adoptive mom, so I intimately understand the pull these images have on well-intentioned hearts. Shouldn’t people with love to spare be allowed to give Haiti’s earthquake orphans a chance to grow up within the stable embrace of an American, French, or Dutch family?
“The bottom line lesson is that if you rush, you make mistakes,” said adoption expert Adam Pertman.
But as I learned when my own daughter’s adoption from Guatemala compelled me to look more deeply into the issues surrounding international family building, the answer is more complicated than it might seem, even when there isn’t a natural disaster to contend with. How, for example, do you weigh an American adoptive mother’s joy over a Chinese birth mother’s grief? And given all the money that changes hands during an adoption and the many news reports of corruption, is it possible for any transnational adoptee to be certain that the way she came into her family was 100 percent free of bribes or coercion?
In Haiti, where there are questions about whether some children classified as “orphans” have lost their families permanently, adoption is certainly ethically fraught. Between 800 and 900 Haitian orphans had been matched with American families before the earthquake. Many adoption experts support last week’s decision by the United States Department of Homeland Security to allow those children to join their adoptive families on an expedited schedule, before they have been granted visas.
But for children who were not already in the system, those experts say adoption should not be an option—at least not right now. “It’s wonderful that people care so much, but the gut doesn’t always jibe with the brain,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national adoption research and advocacy organization. “To think, ‘I’ll heal them and they’ll have a better life here than in Haiti,’ may be a noble instinct, but it may not be the best thing for the child.”
Why? For starters, many of these children may not be orphans. “A child could have been at school and the parents were at work far away,” said Tom DiFilipo, president of JCICS. “That child could be alone for weeks and weeks and seem like an orphan and put into the adoption process. But in reality the mother was injured and in the hospital and wasn’t able to travel to her child due to poverty or poor conditions of roads.” Intensive efforts also need to be made to reunite children with existing family members and living parents before declaring a child is available for adoption, said DiFilipo.
Under more normal circumstances, intercountry adoptions often take years to complete. That’s because time-intensive safeguards are needed to verify that an adoption is free from coercion or other forms of corruption. Prospective adoptive parents also need to be screened to make sure they are financially stable and mentally and physically able to care for a child who may have special needs and may not share their race and ethnicity.
The process can seem needlessly and maddeningly bureaucratic. But so far, no country has been able to come up with a system that is both streamlined and ethical. “The bottom line lesson is that if you rush, you make mistakes,” Pertman said. Even before the earthquake, some of Haiti’s adoption programs didn’t have sterling track records. There were accusations of child trafficking, of bribes paid to government officials, and of parents being tricked into sending their children to orphanages for a better life, only to discover later that orphanage residents were malnourished.
Less than two weeks after the earthquake, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had documented at least 15 Haitian children who are missing from hospitals, raising fears that those children could have been trafficked into intercountry adoption programs. Temporarily closing the country to adoption, child welfare organizations argue, is the only way to prevent traffickers from exploiting the fact that the earthquake has left the adoption system even more unregulated.
But not every child advocate believes Haitian children should stay put. “There are religious organizations in Florida who are willing to take in Haitian children who appear to be without families,” said Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who directs the school’s Child Advocacy Program. “I think that would be a huge benefit for the children given the turmoil and devastation in Haiti. It’s much more realistic to consider that a thorough investigation could be done in Florida. If birth parents cannot be located, they could be moved on through the adoption process.”
That’s a solution most adoption experts are not ready to consider. Pertman argued, “We also need to understand that their safety includes their psychological well being. It’s not optimal to move kids into new cultures while they are traumatized.”
Mental health may seem like a luxury, considering that hundreds of thousands of children are living in tent cities teeming with potentially fatal diseases. But there’s an even more practical reason why adoption agencies shouldn’t be sending additional workers to Haiti right now: They shouldn’t be competing for the same food, water, and shelter that are needed by the Haitian people and the emergency aid workers scrambling to keep them safe from looting and crime.
So while it may feel counterintuitive, the best way to help the children of Haiti is not to move heaven and earth to bring them into American homes. “Let the smoke clear,” said Pertman. “Let them clean up and get the children into safe places. Help the professionals who are helping these kids. Then let’s take a step back and look at what is needed in the long term. For some that will mean adoption. And for many that will not.”
As any adoptive family knows, adoption lasts a lifetime. Haitian parents, children, and potential adoptive parents deserve more than a quick fix.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen writes frequently about intercountry adoption for publications including Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Times.