January 26, 2010

In the Best Interest of Haiti's Children

When the earthquake hit, someone I know who has a very loving heart came to me and said their first reaction was that they wanted to open their home to an orphaned Haitian child.

I reacted less favorably than they thought I would.  Immediately, my mind went to my own stepsons and how they would react to a major tragedy such as an earthquake of even half the devastation of what happened in Haiti.  I imagined then that some well-meaning person took them out of the United States, put them on a plane to a country where the language and customs were completely different from what they had grown up with and dropped them into a new family.  That family might even be a different race, a different religion, and with different values all together from what they have learned growing up. I imagined the pain of adjustment to such a new experience, so soon after a major catastrophe.

Recently, Save the Children called for a halt to new adoptions because, as spokesperson Carolyn Miles said ""The vast majority of the children currently on their own still have family members alive who will be desperate to be reunited with them and will be able to care for them with the right support..."

Adoption in Haiti has already been fraught with problems. Some orphanages and organizations are calling for a relaxing of Visa and Immigration requirements to allow orphaned Haitian children to be adopted out more quickly. However, in the absence of a clear and structured plan and the ability to be certain that children from Haiti are not being placed out of the country when there are as yet unidentified relatives available to take them, hasty action could have lifelong negative consequences for these children.

That being said, from the pulpit this Sunday my own Pastor spoke of the struggles of a family member who had been trying to adopt an orphaned Haitian child now for several years. The child had already been selected and cleared for adoption, but paperwork delays held up the uniting of the new family for years.  The earthquake brought attention to this issue, and many children caught in a paperwork malestorm were released recently for adoption.  This is a different situation than taking children orphaned recently by the earthquake (or possibly not even orphaned) and shipping them to foreign lands.

We must not assume that we, Americans or Europeans in particular, are a better choice for raising these children than other Haitians.  It is a dangerous assumption.  Although there are children who will need the sheltering arms of foreign families, the first effort should be in providing support for Haitians willing to adopt these children, particularly if they are members of their own family.  The youngest of Haitian orphans may fare better at changing cultures.  However, for children over three or four, the culture shock after already suffering through "the thing" as some Haitians are referring to the earthquake might be too much for fragile young psyches.

A plan for Haitian orphans should include the following:

1. Caution, prudence and care must be taken to match as many Haitian children with their own family members or families in their own communities as possible.

2. Because this process will take time, foreign governments and organizations should make their second wave of aid, after the immediate medical and nourishment needs of the earthquake victims, be aimed at providing support to Haitian orphanages. 

3.  When children have been identified as definitively orphaned, foreign adoptions should only be granted once the child has had an opportunity to go through age-specific counseling to help them with the cultural change.  The primary gatekeeper for allowing the adoption to proceed should be a mental health professional.

4.  Once the children are emotionally prepared for adoption, then it is in their interest to remove the impediments of immigration policies and adoption procedures that needlessly prolong the child's stay in the orphanage.

5. Adoption subsidies should be provided for families in Haiti willing to accept orphaned children so that there is an incentive to keep the children in their known culture.

These steps will take funding, and the commitment of the Haitian government and the United Nations.  However, Haiti's beautiful children are well worth it. Rebuilding must begin with the littlest of Haiti's citizens.

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