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Haiti Orphans-A Reality Check for International Adoptions

A child waits at the Haiti Embassy to be processed
A child waits at the Haiti Embassy to be processed
Courtesy of Erin Mungia

In recent weeks, more information has come out of Haiti regarding concerns about child trafficking and exploitation in the wake of the earthquake. Immediately following the earthquake, Indianapolis Adoption Attorney, Michele Jackson had cautioned that there would delays in adoptions from Haiti due. With her extensive experience in international adoption she has dealt with similar situations, including adoption interest that followed the tsunami in Asia in 2004. Jackson has also processed Haitian adoptions and is unique in the Indianapolis legal community for her expertise in orphan visas. In local radio and television interviews she discussed how nations like Haiti are ill-equipped to process paperwork due to the damages to infrastructure and loss of life; they have to deal with immediate humanitarian crises and basic survival. Additionally, human rights organizations typically recommend moratoriums on adoption following national disasters to allow time to reunite displaced children with surviving family and affirm that remaining children are truly orphaned.

The Haiti disaster created a unique situation for orphans who were in the adoption process. Historically, Haiti has been a difficult country for adoption, despite a huge American orphan ministry. Indiana has many ties to Haiti, as several churches (including the Church of God, with its headquarters in Anderson) are instrumental in operating orphanages in the country. At the time of the disaster, about 300 orphans were in the adoption process with American families, with many simply waiting for immigration processing in order to receiving approval to come to the United States. Additional children were also in process for families in other countries such as France and Holland. However, the number of orphans in the adoption process is a minute percentage of the overall number of orphans prior to the earthquake. Haiti had approximately 380,000 orphans, but following the earthquake, that number is believed to have at least doubled, with UNICEF now estimating there are as many as 2 million children orphaned or abandoned.

In order to facilitate the immigration of those children who were in the adoption process, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) instituted a new program referred to as Humanitarian Parole. This special visa process provided an opportunity to expedite those children so they could be transported to the U.S. to be joined with their adoptive families.

The Elements of the Humanitarian Parole visa are:
1. Child is deemed a legal “orphan” through abandonment evidence.
2. Child is already identified for international adoption.
3. Child is matched with adoptive parents.
4. Parents are “home study ready.”
5. Guardian accompanies child for transport.

Since the humanitarian parole visa was implemented, hundreds of orphans have been able to leave Haiti for the U.S., France and Holland, including several who came to Indiana. One of Jackson’s clients personally traveled to Haiti on January 23, 2009 to escort the young boy she and her husband are adopting. However, since that time, the case involving the Baptist missionaries from Idaho has created a new media frenzy and heightened concerns about the dangers of child trafficking in Haiti. While that situation remains under investigation, it highlights the necessity for adherence to established adoption procedures and utilizing adoption professionals and experienced attorneys . At best, the missionaries are simply inept, naive amateurs who were acting with good intentions. Regardless, their actions have now endangered not only the orphans who they were transporting, but the thousands of others who may now languish longer in crowded orphanages without sufficient clothing, food, beds, or education. Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive has indicated that no children will leave the country without his personal approval, which is an overwhelming task for a man already burdened with helping rebuild an impoverished nation which has lost over 220,000 people. The US State Department has also indicated on its website that no new adoptions will be processed from Haiti at this time.

Jackson has formed a team of volunteers comprised of representatives from Mission Haiti, The Fatherless Foundation, MLJ Adoptions and Jocham Harden Dimick Jackson (JHDJ Law) to explore options for identifying children who would still qualify for humanitarian parole while it remains a viable option through USCIS. However, although the U.S. may still allow this special immigration visa for the interim, it is highly unlikely that the Haitian Central Authority will approve any new exit visas for children in the wake of the missionaries’ scandal. A nation reeling from such a devastating disaster is understandably sensitive about protecting its younger generations.

So, what does this mean for adoption from Haiti? JHDJ Law will continue working with orphanages in Haiti and the volunteers in Indiana to identify any children who may qualify for the special visa. The volunteer team is also implementing a long term proposal to work through MLJ Adoptions, a Hague-approved, licensed child-placing agency to create a structured Haiti Adoption program. Adoptions from Haiti prior to the disaster were completed through a frustrating independent process. The reality is that Haiti was the poorest nation in this hemisphere prior to the earthquake, and the majority of its population are minors. Their existing infrastructure was insufficient to address their orphan crisis and the majority of orphan care prior to the earthquake was administered by foreign (mostly US, French and Dutch) nonprofit and faith-based organizations. As the nation slowly recovers, their meager resources will be strained by an orphan crisis which will have doubled as a result of the earthquake. International adoption will be more necessary than ever to provide an option for children to have opportunities for loving homes, families, education and healthy lives. Certainly, efforts will be made to encourage in-country (domestic) adoption in Haiti, but it was limited prior to the earthquake and the poverty and lack of resources that impeded domestic adoption in Haiti will not disappear following this disaster.

One issue of concern to our adoption professionals is whether UNICEF or other organizations will compel Haiti to become Hague compliant for international adoption. If so, the timeline for resuming international adoptions will likely double to as much as 2-3 years from now. Hague implementation is a difficult, time-consuming process for developing countries to structure and organize. An example of this is the closing of adoptions in Guatemala to enable its Central Authority to implement Hague adoptions. The country closed to new adoptions in 2008 and still has not resumed international adoptions. Professionals hope that the necessity for adoption will lead to Haiti prioritizing its adoption programs and allow intercountry adoptions to resume within 6 months to 1 year. Legitimate adoption professionals support initiatives to implement safeguards and regulations to protect orphans and improve adoption processes, but the reality is that children are still aging in orphanages with each year reducing the likelihood they will ever be adopted. A balance must be reached to protect children from unscrupulous practices will facilitating adoption by parents who have completed the requisite investigations and approvals.

For those who work in adoption and advocacy for orphans, the Haiti crisis will ultimately be a positive opportunity to bring awareness to the orphan crisis worldwide. More than 150 million children are abandoned, orphaned or otherwise endangered. For many people who expressed an interest in adopting from Haiti, there are programs in many other nations, with millions of children waiting to be adopted.
Children coming from impoverished nations are typically going to need immediate medical and dental care, as well as additional resources including counseling, translation, and education assistance (e.g. English as a Second Language). Children from Haiti may be recovering from physical injuries from the earthquake as well as the emotional trauma of the disaster. Families who are hosting or considering adopting from another country need to complete all necessary adoption education through an agency experienced in the special issues that arise not just from adopting, but adopting internationally. This will help them understand the challenges and commitment needed for the process, but also to fully explore the blessings and opportunities that come from adopting a child from a different culture.

Some people have not considered international adoption because they are intimidated about the cost. Raising children is not an inexpensive process – regardless of whether you’re growing your family biologically or through adoption, it is responsible to consider the costs and financial constraints before deciding to parent children. International adoption is also comparatively more expensive than domestic adoption. However, there are more grants and financial assistance programs available through various nonprofits and foundations for international adoption which could help offset some of the adoption-related expenses. A reputable adoption agency or firm will provide its clients with a resource guide on how to fund their adoption including potential grants, loans and fundraising ideas. Also, depending upon your circumstances, you may qualify for adoption tax credits.

Adoption awareness must also address the need for “forever families” for older children. Most prospective adoptive families want to adopt infants. Some families think they are being “generous” when indicating their willingness to adopt a child up to the age of 3. However, the reality is that most children in orphanages are older: school age through teens. Families do need to honestly assess their abilities to accommodate the needs of an older child and to address the transition that will occur, but should fully consider older children. Parents who have adopted older children can attest to the special joys that have come from their experiences. This assertion isn’t to sugarcoat the unique challenges. But limiting criteria for adoption may limit so many unexpected rewards. To reiterate what has circulated among the professional adoption community for a few years: “This isn’t about finding children for families – it is about finding families for children.”

Now more than ever as a result of the media attention grown from the crisis in Haiti, adoption professionals can help interested families decide if adoption is right for them and open up their options to different programs or older children. Committing to international adoption requires planning, patience and the willingness to be flexible and open-minded. But isn’t that simply good preparation since those same qualities are demanded in order to effectively parent?

This information is not intended to be legal advice. Adoption is a legal process and you should consult an attorney if you are considering adoption to discuss your specific situation.

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