The children lined up on low wooden benches at the House of God’s Children orphanage form a typical Sunday School scene: The boys poke each other and laugh, the girls whisper or wait quietly.
Then a young woman whose head nearly reaches the plastic tarp shading the children sets down the Bible she carries in one hand and says it’s time for the opening hymn. “Our great God blesses us,” the small voices sing in unison, “His immense charity will last through eternity.”
Now unbeknownst to them they are at the eye of a strengthening storm – one that is churning up the advocates of streamlined adoption procedures for Haiti against those who say too-hasty adoption can hurt the children and birth parents that in some cases still exist.
That debate is no newer than the issue of orphans in Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country where dozens of only minimally regulated orphanages serve as prime alternatives for families in wealthier countries seeking to adopt.
Now the earthquake has sharpened the debate, by drawing heartstring-pulling attention to what experts estimate are thousands of new orphans left in the temblor’s wake. While numbers remain only estimates, Haitian officials say that more than 100,000 people died in the disaster.
Five-month-old Berlando puts a human face on both those staggering numbers and the orphan-adoption controversy. A resident of God’s Children for a week, Berlando was brought in by his grandmother, who could not care for him after both his parents were killed in the quake.
"They found him lying on a bed with his father, the father had died but the baby survived,” says Pierre Alexis, administrative director of God’s Children. “If the grandmother says no one in that family can care for him, we feel the child is better off here.”
As wrenching as the stories of children left with no family after the earthquake may be, they are just a new twist on a recurring story here – one often made sadder by an element of neglect.
Mr. Alexis tells of the baby that passers-by found in an adjacent rubbish-filled gully. “She had been tossed in like another bag of garbage,” he says. He points to a different girl, immobile in a crib, whose mother tried to abort her by drinking a poison.
Now Alexis and his staff sleep with the children out on the ground, the children too frightened after the earthquake to sleep inside. And he has hired new security to keep out the thieves that have tried since the quake to get at the orphanage’s meager food supplies.
Haiti and US cut red tape for adoptions
One silver lining to an otherwise terrible disaster, Alexis says, is how the quake has expedited adoptions to the US. On Saturday 80 children left God’s Children headed for their new American families, Haitian and American red tape suddenly cut.
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.
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.”