Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Unanswered Questions Abound on the Plight of Haitian “Adoptees” in the U.S.



In the days following the Haitian earthquake, well over 1,000 children departed Haiti as “adoptees” bound for the U.S. and other nations like the Netherlands and France. Those children now in the U.S. were brought across the border in an expedited manner on humanitarian visas and without passports.

This marks a “first” for U.S. immigration in recent history and is reminiscent of the Vietnam baby lift. While good intentioned, problems exist; for one, the children are officially in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugees and Resettlement. This is due to the fact that they entered on humanitarian visas, rather than orphan visas. As a result, these children are not truly in the legal custody of their “adoptive” families until they are re-adopted in their new state of residence. While some families have managed to finalize their adoptions, other families are finding it difficult due to visa typology and the lack of documentation and adoption decree from Haiti.

This means that these particular children do not enjoy the benefits of their new family’s health insurance or other entitlements of legally adopted children including U.S. citizenship. While advocates are working to resolve this issue, it appears that an act of Congress is being proposed to solve the problem. While we await the bill’s introduction, the longer it takes the more U.S. taxpayers will spend covering the costs of overseeing these cases as well as the expense of benefits such as Medicaid. Wasting any further time is a burden and an injustice for these children.

While a concerted effort was made to only bring children to the U.S. who had adoption matches and appropriate paperwork filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a handful of children were brought to the U.S. without such evidence. Their cases are truly alarming.

Steering away from the obvious question of how these children were actually swept up in the evacuation without appropriate or adequate paperwork, new questions emerge. One such group of children was evacuated by the Governor of Pennsylvania and they now reside in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the care of Holy Family Institute. Now, four months after the earthquake, there appears to be no clear plan for these children. Even more, they live without the benefit of parental care in an institutional setting. Little is known about the children at this point, and while confidentiality is an imperative in child welfare practice, transparency and accountability are also critical.

It appears that the International Red Cross has been contracted for family tracing, but this request took place three months after the children’s arrival. Then it took several more weeks for the most logical step: contacting the orphanage director in Haiti. Reportedly, she knows the names, locations and status of the biological families of these children and is more than happy to assist in coming to a logical and ethical resolution.

It appears that some of the biological families have now been located. But when will a plan be formulated for these children to either return to their families in Haiti or be placed in permanent adoptive families? Obviously, dragging this out is not in the best interests of the children. It is critical that they step up efforts to verify the background of these children, connecting with the biological parents left in Haiti to insure their self determination and knowledge of their child’s whereabouts. Then logical decisions for permanent care can be made. If adoption is deemed to be in the best interests of the child, critical questions must be considered and acted on in a manner that is both ethical and efficient.

Apparently, U.S. families that have previously adopted siblings and friends formerly residing at the same orphanage in Haiti have asked to provide permanent homes for these Pittsburgh-based children. This has not yielded results and the future is unclear. Some fear that these children’s rights are complicated by a number of factors, including an important contextual consideration—a significant decline in intercountry adoption in the United States. As a result, any new child entering the adoption system is highly desirable. Adoption of these children can and potentially will result in sizeable adoption fees, probably ranging on average from $20,000-$25,000. If adoption does happen, this leaves new questions about which families will have opportunities to adopt.

But what sort of considerations will be made to match these children with families that can best meet their needs? If some of these children already have siblings in the U.S., this must be considered—it is a fundamental right to join siblings when possible. Another critical question: will Haitian American or families originally from the Caribbean region have some opportunity for child placement and adoption? How about placement more generally with African American families? Or, will the placement families be those that most frequently use private adoption agencies, Caucasian and middle- to upper-class families?

Another group of children that arrived on humanitarian visas are those who were medically evacuated. This is an entirely different group of children who were sent to hospitals throughout the U.S.—some of them leaving behind intact Haitian families. The actual number of children who fall in this category and the outcomes of treatment and long-term plans are absent in the press. One area of concern has been the eventual return of children to Haiti because evacuation of the children did not, on the whole, incorporate care planning for the final and critical stage of family reunification. Some, concerned that the children will eventually enter into the intercountry adoption system in a back door process, encouraged the U.S. government to document what was known about the children’s background including DNA tests.

Responding to these issues, a group of child welfare experts sent an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, that advice was not heeded, and now reconnecting some of these children with their biological families in Haiti for reunification will inevitably be a challenge. The will to truly pursue the release of these children, many of them now living in foster care and group home situations, is also something to be concerned about. It is emotionally difficult to send a child back to the extreme poverty and limited health care seen in Haiti.

This is further complicated by concerns that some Haitian families will not come forward, thereby creating a defacto child relinquishment for adoption by U.S. families. The weaknesses and vulnerabilities in this process are considerable; however, it is critical for those administrating social services in these cases to collaborate with the International Red Cross family search process and make a demonstrative effort to return children to their biological parents or extended kin like grandparents, aunts and uncles.

As the U.S. proceeds, it is important to remember the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (2009) Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. In this comprehensive document, it states that during emergencies, governments must “prevent the cross-border displacement of children except…temporarily for compelling health, medical or safety reasons. In that case, this should be as close as possible to their home, they should be accompanied by a parent or care giver known to the child, and a clear return plan should be established.”

As a social worker committed to international child welfare and human rights, I am left wondering just how many Haitian children will experience the fullest conception of their rights, either as children wait in an institution in Pittsburg or those children disbursed all across the U.S. who arrived as medical evacuees. While I recognize that there are complicated questions embedded in this issue, I am disappointed that the international press now seems unconcerned about the outcomes of these children.

Ultimately this underscores a number of issues about human nature, including easy boredom with news of disaster combined with the reality that many would argue that life in the U.S. is superior. I am not interested in even entertaining that conversation as it detracts from the fundamental issue at hand and that is the integrity of U.S. intervention in Haiti and the human rights of a people at the most vulnerable moment in recent history. If the U.S. intends to participate in evacuations during emergencies with the promise of ethical decisionmaking about the long-term planning for children, then what happens to these Haitian children counts—not just to their families but to the future of all such international interventions during disaster.

Finally, from a practical standpoint, due to expediency many rules were bent if not broken to meet the goal of rescuing these children. The decisions that were made by immigration and other government officials were grounded in humanitarian values. But there are concerns about the relaxing of standards for foster care of those children who are still in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugees and Resettlement. And, no doubt there has been inadequate supervision of these child placements. This particular federal government office is not equipped with professional social workers to carry out home visits and assessments as is the standard in child welfare.

Inevitably, there are other issues at hand which have not even yet surfaced and rumor is of child placement/adoption disruption and even possibly dissolution in a handful of cases. It is imperative that a group of child welfare experts—those who do not benefit from income or funding from the intercountry adoption industry—review of the circumstances of all children in precarious circumstances. This is critical for informing future child welfare practices during a disaster.

A step in the right direction would be to invite experts from organizations that have the public trust: the Association of Black Social Workers (ABSW) and other professional social workers such as Haitian Americans in addition to those who have global practice experience working in the Caribbean. Whoever is at the table, I vote for ABSW to lead the charge as their value system for fairness, equity and child welfare excellence is clear and their judgment will be based on sound assessment and expertise

*Karen Smith Rotabi is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is an assistant professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has lived and worked in the Caribbean and Central America, and is an outspoken critic of intercountry adoption fraud. A longer policy analysis about Haiti and the attempt to traffic children as intercountry adoptees can be found in the May/June 2010 issue of Journal of Global Social Work Practice. Also, see the author’s website at www.HagueEvaluation.com.

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