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The Haitian Adoption Conundrum

January 28, 2010

With the recent Haitian earthquake, international adoption has again come to the front pages of world newspapers and stories about it are abundant. I see two different narratives here: One is the parents who have already gone through most of the paperwork of adopting a Haitian child. The earthquake struck and now they are left wondering if they/when will see their kid. The others are the many families in this country and others who viewed with shock the devastation and believe adopting the surviving children is something they should do. The article below sums up the first group and their issues quite well.

“Painful Limbo for Parents Adopting Haitian Kids”

I feel for the parents who have nearly finished the adoption process, and now wait with anxiety to hear about the children they were so close to calling their own. What a terrible feeling that must be for them.

But this post is not about those families; this is for the people moved by the events on the ground and believes that adoption is the best option. Sometimes it might be, but generally it’s not. Consider this quote from UNICEF:

“Unicef’s position has always been that whatever the humanitarian situation, family reunification must be favoured,” spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said during a press briefing in Geneva. “The last resort is inter-country adoption.”

At the risk of sounding too negative, and as awful as the events are in Haiti, a family must be fully prepared emotionally if they are going to adopt a Haitian earthquake orphan. Haiti has been a mess for decades and rebuilding it (to be better than it was) will take an untold amount of time. But a knee-jerk reaction to “save” Haitian kids also will have consequences that reverberate for years as well. I’m glad to see that children’s relief advocates and organizations are cautioning people about letting their emotions rule over their logical minds when it comes to adopting Haitian children. To want to save the kids is a rational, human response, but that doesn’t make adoption the right one.

I’ve read about some people advocating massive baby lifts out of Haiti, comparable to the ones in 1975, which took place in Vietnam. I don’t think this is a good idea for a few reasons. One is that there are millions of kids in awful situations who have no future all over the world. Just because there was a national disaster does not mean they should all be taken to other countries. I do not remember any call for a baby lift type of mass evacuation of orphans after the South Asian Tsunami or the Pakistani Kashmir earthquake in 2005.

Consider this statement from the Joint Council on International Children’s Services regarding the possibility of airlifts.

“While both airlifts and new adoptions are based on valid concerns and come from an obviously loving heart, neither option is considered viable by any credible child welfare organisation,” said the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a US advocacy group. “Bringing children into the US either by airlift or new adoption during a time of national emergency can open the door for fraud, abuse and trafficking.”

The second reason, one that we don’t like to dwell on, is that children are endangered, exploited, orphaned and left without hope or a future everywhere. Always have been, always will be. That doesn’t mean they should be forgotten, but it does mean the problem is too big for adoption to solve. The international community should be more focused on changing the conditions on the ground. I would like to see them more concerned with changing the environment which causes the needs for adoption in the first place. This includes ensuring they have access to healthcare and education, rebuilding infrastructure, removing structural and institutional inequality and keeping family units together as much as they can, along with a host of other improvements – rather than putting them on planes and taking them from their homelands.

Further grounds against adoption now are the massive loss of paperwork. Millions of pages and records have been destroyed and lost. There are bound to be cases where a parent or family member comes forward and says their child were taken from them. But without documents to prove otherwise, they won’t have a case. In the midst of the chaos extended family members of children won’t be contacted, or won’t be found in time and the children will be considered orphans.

What about the adoption fast tracking that is bound to occur in the process for these children? Should the prospective parents not be subjected to the same rigorous examinations that so many adoptive parents elsewhere have gone through, merely because they are adopting Haitian earthquake orphans? Is this good for the child? I’m not saying this is going to happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. The world is focused on Haiti right now and particularly its most vulnerable. Finding them homes quickly is the type of feel-good story the media loves to tell, in order reassure those who aren’t affected that something good will come from this.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not an emotionally detached observer of the Haitian catastrophe. My heart breaks for those kids who are without family because of the earthquake and I want them to have a better life. The last things I want to see or read about are hopeless children without basic needs in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Materially, a better life would come from leaving Haiti, on that point I don’t think someone could argue. However, to me it is imperative that anyone who is thinking about adoption of a Haitian during this crisis should be fully aware of what they are getting themselves into. When I say this, I’m not necessarily referring to the families in the article and the other ones who have already met their children, gone through a majority of the paperwork and await their children’s arrival. I’m talking about the many that will read the dreadful stories about the kids in Haiti and decide based on a humanitarian response that they should adopt.

As I’ve said before, adoption is a messy process. You may be taking the child from a life of poverty and difficultly (certainly the case in Haiti and elsewhere) but there are adoption wounds which can never be fully healed. When you adopt a child from Haiti are you going to be able to help them get in touch with their birth culture? Do you have a long-term plan about how you, as probably a different race from your child, will be raising a Haitian? Additionally, any Haitian orphan who is newly adopted at this point will have the label of an “earthquake orphan.” I can only imagine how difficult that mark will be as they grow older, as endeavor to understand what that means and how that forms their identity growing up.

The issue of adopting Haitian children orphaned by the earthquake is a complex one. There is not a right answer, or an easy one. The plights of these children should not be ignored, and yet adoption of all of them is not a feasible response either. I can’t totally fault someone for believing they need to “do their part,” and adopt a child from Haiti. I’d just like the dialogue to focus a bit more on their eventual life elsewhere, rather than on their immediate sense of danger. If they are adopted and leave Haiti, there will be a lot of life to be lived afterwards, and they need to be given every chance to make the most of it.

Elli Nagai-Rothe
June 6, 2010 at 9:35 am

Great post. I fully agree. Specifically, I think you are right that “a knee-jerk reaction to “save” Haitian kids also will have consequences that reverberate for years as well.” What I don’t think you say explicitly, but what I think it quite implicit in this situation (and many others like it), are some clear power dynamics at play that also involve race. Adoptive parents of privilege (who are mostly white) in countries like the US, selecting to adopt children (mostly children of color) in distress to “save” them from their lives of poverty in developing country contexts highlights a troubling reality. A power dynamic that plays out in our (US) international development policies as well. The fact that we don’t talk much about this racial element speaks to a white majority’s belief that we live in a “color blind” era, where race doesn’t matter. Thus within this short-sighted framework, when adopting children (who happen to be primarily children of color) from these contexts to give them a better life, it shouldn’t matter what their race is, or the race of the adoptive parents. While I’m sure we’d all like to live in a world where race doesn’t matter, and where racism doesn’t exist, we currently don’t live in that world. Racism is alive and well, and we all need to be mindful of the many ways that racist systems and structures manifest. For potential parents in the US who feel moved to adopt Haitian children following the disaster there, I would hope they take a moment to reflect on how their choices impact or perpetuate inequitable systems, and play into a white normative framework of who has the right and the ability to “help” or “save” and what exactly that means. Additionally, I hope they are aware of the role that their own racial identities play into all of this.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!