Haitian orphans: Americans fight red tape to hasten adoptions

The US government has expedited orphan transfers after the earthquake in Haiti. But aid groups worry about trafficking children whose parents or other relatives still may be alive.

By , Staff writer

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    Abbey McArthur, a teacher at Three Angels Children's Orphanage in Petionville, Haiti hugs Reece Yunker, 8, after leaving customs at the St. Lucie County International Airport in Fort Pierce, Fla. Monday.
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A shy girl named Dania cradled a doll during her “homecoming,” and an extroverted boy named Jimmy sang for a crowd of reporters – among the first of some 900 Haitian orphans expected to be airlifted out of the earthquake-damaged island nation and brought to America.

The State Department’s expedited transfer of Haitian orphans to adoptive parents in the United States has become one of the most ennobling, but also potentially controversial, moments of the Haitian earthquake tragedy, which has reportedly killed tens of thousands of people and left thousands of children orphaned.

The image of Haitian children arriving in the arms of new US parents is part of a massive outpouring of concern. Americans are now bombarding adoption agencies with offers to help care for the children. Some US aid organizations, including Roman Catholic groups in Miami, are urging the State Department to go well beyond expediting some 900 already-approved adoptions and bring thousands of earthquake orphans to the US as soon as possible.

But as rough conditions in Haiti raises pressure on authorities to airlift the children out, the disaster also exposes a complicated moral, ethical, and even political conundrum about how to measure a traumatized child’s real needs in the midst of widespread destruction and loss of life.

“This is a battle between the gut and the mind: The gut wants to go get all the kids, and the mind has to be persuaded that, as good as the motives are, that may not be the right answer for all these kids,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonpartisan think tank on global adoption policy.

Visa requirements waived

The unprecedented new US policy, announced Monday night by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, involves waiving visa requirements for kids already in the adoption pipeline, including some children who had been paired with US parents but whose adoptions had not been approved by Haitian officials.

But even as American communities welcome new adoptees into their midst and would-be parents come forward, international aid groups are urging US authorities to tread carefully to make sure children aren’t adopted away from living parents or relatives, and to keep smuggling rings from expanding on the poverty-ravaged island, once occupied by the US.

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"Any hasty new adoptions would risk permanently breaking up families, causing long-term damage to already vulnerable children, and could distract from aid efforts in Haiti," the aid groups Save the Children, World Vision, and the British Red Cross said in a joint statement.

There are more than 200 orphanages in Haiti, but the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned that not all the children are real orphans – and that smugglers in some cases buy children from poor parents to be sold to white adoptive parents in the US and elsewhere.

Lessons from Indonesia and Sri Lanka

Even as international adoption demands grow, countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka have crafted stricter adoption policies to shield children from being torn from their own cultures. Critics say those policies reflect political interests and extend the amount of time children spend in institutions or on the streets.

That tension has already become evident as the orphan crisis grows in Haiti.

A delegation led by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell flew the first group of children out this week, but only after a protracted battle with Haitian officials, who under pressure from US officials finally relented and approved the transfers of all 54 children. The airlift appeared to buck the new US policy, since seven of the children had no adoptive parents lined up in the US.

One of those who did have a home waiting was 7-year-old Dania, adopted by Nathan and Catrina Brock of Toccoa, Ga. The disaster has left the girl, already shy, even more subdued, Mr. Brock said at a press conference this week in Pittsburgh. “I want to get her into dirt bikes, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” her new brother, Austin, told reporters.

Not knowing if big-eyed Dania was all right after the earthquake, “I had moments of madness,” Ms. Brock told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, explaining that the girl’s paperwork had already been lost twice as they went through a four-year process of getting a Haitian adoption approved.

The Brocks thanked state and US officials for shifting national policy to help Haiti’s struggling children.

“The world’s eyes are on Haiti,” said Ms. Brock. “There are so many orphans. Taking care of widows and orphans is God’s greatest calling for our lives.”

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