Adoption Is Still About Poverty

by Barbara Free, M.A., LADAC

     There has been a great deal of media coverage concerning adoption since the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti. The American Adoption Congress has made a special policy statement concerning adoptions from Haiti. It was estimated that 380,000 Haitian children were orphans before the earthquake, and the deaths of many parents in the earthquake has added to that number. The immediate reaction of many well-intentioned people was, “Bring them to the U.S., where so many people want to adopt children.”
     Some of these children were already in the process of being adopted before the earthquake, needing only to be transported to their waiting U.S. adoptive families. Others were somewhere in that procedure and needed completion of paperwork. Watching the television coverage of some of these children arriving on airplanes and being welcomed was, on the one hand, heartwarming; persons familiar with adoption and the many issues of trans-cultural adoption could see terror in the eyes of many of these young children and think, “What must it be like to be put on airplane for the first time, have your ears hurt with the change in altitude, then get off the plane into a crowd of white people, a lot of noise, everyone speaking a language you don’t know, a lot of strangers picking you up, getting in your face, giving you strange food, and taking you to a strange house, everything familiar all gone?” This is not to question the love or motives of the adoptive families and their own supporters, and most of the children will go on to lead happy lives, but we must be aware of the cost to those children in emotional terms, not just the economic advantages they have gained.
     A great many more children, however, were not in any stage of being adopted and may not even be orphans. Some orphanages in Haiti are well-run, legal, and beneficial to the children. Others already were without adequate resources, were poorly-run, had children who had been spirited away from family, and in some cases, did not even exist, but the supposed directors were taking money from well-meaning donors.
     The consequences of the earthquake are that some orphanages were physically destroyed, including some legitimate ones. Some children have, indeed, arrived in the U.S. to be with adoptive families, and some have arrived for temporary care. Of course, there are many newly orphaned children, also. However, the idea of wholesale “baby lifts” and rapid adoptions (as in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975) is very unwise. Many, if not most, of these children have some family, either parents or extended family, who, if found, will care for them if they can simply feed them. To take children from their homeland, their culture, and their extended family is not necessarily best for them. There is a rather arrogant assumption that the U.S. (especially white U.S.) is always better, always an improvement, over whatever life a child has had in their country of birth. The corollary is that children are always better off in more affluent circumstances, and certainly better off speaking English than French or Spanish or whatever language their original culture speaks. This is about poverty, racism, and classism. Children available for adoption are always viewed as a commodity by society, although not by their adoptive families. When poverty, racism, and classism are added to the picture, the frequent attitude is, “We can do whatever we want with these superfluous children.” Hence, we have supposed rescuers, some even calling themselves missionaries, lying to parents and extended families, absconding with children, claiming they’re orphans when they are not, and attempting to take them across international borders without permission or paperwork. This is not compassion, this is kidnaping! There has even been some notion that the border between Haiti and Dominican Republic doesn’t really count because, after all, it’s the same poor island and if someone in the U.S. wants these kids, other borders don’t count, anything in the Western Hemisphere being some sort of subsidiary of the U.S.! The border apparently counted when Haitian refugees have tried to enter the U.S., however, and many, even whole families, have been held in prisons for extended periods of time while the U.S. tries to decide whether to deport them or allow them to enter as human beings. Since the earthquake, some of these people have been released—now they’re acceptable as refugees.
     Fortunately, the media coverage of the earthquake, and of these attempts to bring children the U.S. without papers or permission, has brought these practices to light and intervened upon further abuses of this nature. Nevertheless, there is still an attitude on the part of many that Haitians are not only poor, but ignorant and less intelligent by virtue of poverty, language, and African ancestry. Some even claim they don’t “really” speak French! Now, this writer has two years of college French, and no longer speaks French but can understand it fairly well, and Haitian French is certainly French, just as Southwestern English is still English, although with neither a Cockney nor an Oxford accent.
     When powerful earthquakes hit California twice in the last twenty years, no one suggested “they should never rebuild and just move everyone” or “take all the children to Canada and adopt them where they can learn a new language and culture.” Just weeks after the Haitian earthquake, an even larger one struck Chile. Some consequences were similar, some not. No doubt there are children separated from parents and some orphaned. Will they also be considered “up for grabs” by some, or will their larger country, less disturbed governmental situations, and greater distance from the U.S. mean that people will view things differently? Will the media coverage of the Haitian “child grabs” help prevent similar abuses in Chile? Will both of these tragic earthquakes help us see that adoption is not just a sweet and sentimental solution to someone’s poverty?
     Not everyone and every agency in Haiti believes children should be shunted into orphanages or shipped to the U.S., however. In the March 8, 2010, issue of Time, an article details how a therapist who is volunteering for UNICEF, which, along with other aid groups, is working to register as many kids as they can find who were orphaned or separated from parents during the earthquake and its aftermath, and then are trying to reconnect them with their families. So far, the article says, UNICEF has registered around 200 children and expects to have thousands logged by year’s end. The registry was started right after the earthquake, and is similar to one created in South Asia after the tsunami in 2004. In the worst-hit area there, aid workers took five months to compile a list of 3,000 displaced children, 240 of whom were reunited with a parent, and hundreds more went to live with relatives whom aid workers found by going door to door and matching information about birth marks or other identifying details. Marie de la Soudiere, who is coordinating the Haitian registry, say that, in the thirty years she has spent helping children in disaster and war zones around the world, the vast majority of children, even child soldiers, have an immediate or extended family member who, when contacted, is willing to take them in. The goal for Haitian children is to find their families, even if it takes time and effort. One of her slogans is “No to orphanages.” Part of the urgency in Haiti is rampant child trafficking there. There are, as stated above, responsible orphanages in this poorest of Western Hemisphere nations, but there are many loosely monitored ones, and children who end up in those often get “adopted” by people who turn them into household slaves called restaveks or force them into prostitution. A person who was serving as the legal advisor to the so-called missionaries trying to take the 33 children out of Haiti is, in fact, wanted in El Salvador and the U.S. on human trafficking charges. To keep children out of this risk, de la Soudiere gets help from volunteering nurses to aid the children if they are injured, then to ask than about family, where they lived, whom they know or where they went to school. After extensive questioning, they can usually get a name, a neighborhood, or a school, and then find some extended family. Then agencies can provide support for care-givers. Some food, clothing, and education assistance can make a lot of difference to families who can barely feed themselves. By building this network, they are also strengthening families and the culture.
     One of the ways that persons with adoption connections can really help, aside from monetary contributions to legitimate aid organizations to help families in poverty to stay together and live, is to support adoption reform across the world and talk about it the connections between poverty and adoption. Whether one is an adoptee, a birth parent, or adoptive parent, the poverty connection has always been there. Relinquishment is nearly always due to poverty or threats of poverty through the birth mother being disowned by family or having insufficient resources. Adoption because of parental poverty is still the main reason children are available around the world. Further, adoption is denied to many would-be adoptive parents due to their relative poverty. This is not to say that adoption, including trans-cultural adoption, should never take place. It is saying we should not try to ignore the poverty connection and the losses sustained by everyone involved. Readers are urged to continue paying attention to these complicated adoption issues and to speak out about them.

Excerpted from the April 2010 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2010 Operation Identity