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Haiti earthquake reignites debate over fast-tracking adoptions

Haiti and the US have cut red tape in order to facilitate adoption of the hundreds of children who are believed to be orphaned by the Jan. 12 earthquake, but some argue that rushing the process could jeopardize family reunification.

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Members of Congress pressed the State Department to move for quick evacuation from Haiti of children who were already in the adoption pipeline. And last week 34 senators led by Rep. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, seeking additional steps to ensure expedited adoptions from Haiti.

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The letter called for a reinforced effort to “find and rescue” orphans in Haiti, for new “adoption centers” to care for orphans, and for facilitating adoptions in cases where documentation was destroyed by the earthquake.

Dangers to rushing adoptions

But some experts say rushing adoptions in a disaster aftermath is the wrong answer for displaced children. Thousands of Haitian children may have indeed been either orphaned or separated from families by the quake, says the New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC). But in-country protection services and reunification efforts should be emphasized first, the group says.

“It’s tempting to want to airlift children out of Haiti, getting them out of harm’s way immediately,” says Michelle Brané, director of WRC’s detention and asylum program. “But it’s important to remember that in the current chaos, thousands of people, including parents and children, are still searching for their families. Removing children from countries too quickly after an emergency,” she adds, can “jeopardize family reunification efforts…and increase the risk that children will fall into the hands of traffickers and other ill-intentioned individuals.”

Ms. Brané says it’s a common practice of parents or caregivers in Haiti to send their children to orphanages for better care and security.

That appears to be true at the Center for Aid to the Disinherited, a combination orphanage, neighborhood school – and now homeless camp – also in the Delmas neighborhood. Run by a Haitian nun, the school has a bewildering mix of orphans, local children who live and learn at the school but have some family, and abandoned children whose status in unclear.

“If I’m presented with an abandoned child, I don’t have it in me to turn him away,” says Sister Marie Judith Clerfond, the school’s director. “Some of them still have parents, but we don’t know where they are.”

Managing the school’s 300 children – including 30 orphans – was a daily challenge for Sister Marie Judith before the quake, but now she seems overwhelmed.

The temblor brought down the roof over the dispensary, and the chapel was damaged. Earth slid out from under a dormitory building.

And now she has more mouths to feed. World Vision donated some tarps for the homeless who have come into the yard, but no one has come forward with food donations, and the school is running low.

But Sister Marie Judith says she hasn’t considered adoption for her school’s orphans.

“Our motto is to raise the children so they can make their own way in life,”she says, “and I think Haiti needs that, maybe even more so now.”