The humanitarian response to the thousands of Haitian children who have been displaced from their families or even “orphaned” must proceed with caution. Medical evacuations from Haiti to the United States have resumed, and children are being flown in on humanitarian visas for medical care. The Shriners Hospital of Springfield, MA, is one facility receiving a small number of Haitian children. “Once these children enter into a phase of rehabilitation, they will need temporary care with families in the U.S., and we are already beginning to work on that issue,” said social worker DeGuerre Blackburn, executive director of Voices for International Development and Adoption (VIDA) and a consultant in this process. But Blackburn emphasizes that conducting DNA tests and creating a DNA databank are also necessary because eventually reuniting children with their families in Haiti is the number one priority. The DNA will help to reunite children with uncertain identities, a challenge in most post-disasters environments.
The first priority should be to identify and task an organization with a strong information management system—and no financial interest in intercountry adoption—to manage DNA matching. This could be a government organization, or even better, a reputable nongovernmental organization that can quickly and efficiently develop and implement the process. Collaborating with the private sector, which can donate the tests as a form of humanitarian disaster assistance, is also a good option.
Besides compiling a DNA database, coding the Haitian children’s visas is another protective policy that should be implemented. Currently, the number of Haitian children who will legally enter the United States under humanitarian visas for medical purposes is not being officially reported. These children could be tracked by simply marking their visas, and then using the DNA database to identify them when it is time for a visa renewal.
Regardless of how policymakers handle the early stages of a child rescue, social workers must continue to caution anyone hoping to adopt a Haitian “orphan.” Already, there are reports of scams, with families in the United States being offered the opportunity to “adopt,” and unscrupulous individuals requiring up-front fees and payments for adoption services.
Aside from the adoptions that were already being processed when the earthquake struck Haiti, there have been no new legal adoptions since. This will change in time, but in these early days social workers must caution hopeful families and, when called to assist with adoptions, only coordinate with reputable organizations. It is important to remember that not all those who call themselves “adoption professionals” have credentials and experience in child welfare placement, especially in the context of disaster.
From a psychological perspective, Saint Louis University Professor Judith Gibbons warns against further disrupting the lives of children in crisis zones. “The research literature on helping children get through crises, including war and natural disasters, suggests that they need normalization,” she said. “So, even the best intentioned shift in their environment—to different language, culture, food, or caretakers—carries with it additional stress, and a delay in psychological recovery.”
Because many Haitian children are being airlifted in this crisis, they must be treated in a culturally competent manner. Haitian social workers, who can work in the child’s language and attend to the needs that Haitians understand best from their cultural lens, should be included in the process whenever possible.
The U.S. government is now tasked with developing short-and long-term child welfare policies. Because Haiti is not a Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCIA) signatory nation, U.S. commitment to that international standard does not apply. And as Bergquist points out in an earlier article, even if the standard did apply, the HCIA has inadequate guidance for adoption in the context of natural disasters.
The Haitian disaster has forever changed the lives of an entire nation. To help its children stay together with family after receiving medical care, policies must be put in place that combine DNA tests, database management and ethical and culturally competent social work. That is how to protect Haiti’s children.
For more information about the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, see the author’s website: www.HagueEvaluation.com
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