Suppose instead of Haiti, a natural catastrophe struck the Navajo Nation, resulting in heartrending scenes and sudden orphans.
Now, let’s suppose there was a free-for-all from well-meaning (and otherwise) white families wanting to adopt Native kids, plucking them from their misfortune and affording them a life in comfy middle-class homes. Imagine missionaries and others on the ground manipulating the meaning of “orphan” and relieving traumatized Navajo parents of their burdens.
We would, of course, be outraged. We’ve been sensitized to the results of removing kids from their right to what the United Nations classifies as “cultural sovereignty.” Regrettably, when it comes to Haitian children and the idea of being matched to stateside white families, a lack of sensitivity is in play for a number of reasons—logic, history and common sense not among them.
Let me say this with due respect to those who feel the best option for these kids is a comfy, middle-class ’burb home with loving, caring white parents and siblings: Back away from the trophy case. A lot more is necessary for a quality black life than material goods and vows to do the right thing by helping these kids stay in touch with their heritage. This construct has enormous consequences, many of which are unexplainable in the face of the double-barreled shotgun of goals and money.
The Adoptees Of Color Roundtable (AOCR) had this to say in a Jan. 25 statement on Haiti: “We resist the racist, colonialist mentality that positions the Western nuclear family as superior to other conceptions of family, and we seek to challenge those who abuse the phrase ‘Every child deserves a family’ to rethink how this phrase is used to justify the removal of children from Haiti for the fulfillment of their own needs and desires.”
Now, if you felt yourself stiffen at the notion that people may be justifying their desire to adopt a Haitian child for “the fulfillment of their own needs and desires,” that is in fact where a sober discussion should happen. Says AOCR: “As adoptees of color we bear a unique understanding of the trauma, and the sense of loss and abandonment that are part of the adoptee experience, and we demand that our voices be heard.” This is pain, the kind white families—sensitive and right thinking as they might be—cannot fathom.
“Sometimes international adoption is the right solution for a child, but far more often it is not.”
SOS Children’s Villages
That said, there have been times when a mass exodus of children was the right thing to do, namely, the Kindertransport program during World War II, when 10,000 Jewish children were removed from Nazi Germany and settled in Britain. No argument there.
But there was also Operation Pedro Pan in the early '60s, when 14,000 unaccompanied children of parents opposed to Castro were brought to the States. Results were mixed, at best, with many ending up alone in remote reaches of the nation without a shred of cultural connection. Many heartbreaking stories have been written by grown Operation Pedro Pan children, presumably also loved by those who took them in.
Two recent examples of orphaned children resulting from natural disaster bear more precise witness. Remember the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005? Ethical, legal and moral chaos erupted in both circumstances when children were being swooped up for adoption in fast order. SOS Children’s Villages, the children’s advocacy charity that worked on the ground in those tragedies (and now Haiti), issued a warning that uprooting children in such situations can be stressful and unsettling. “When you see any child who has lost their family on the news, your natural instinct is to want to go and pick them up and cherish them,” SOS Children’s Villages said. “Sometimes international adoption is the right solution for a child, but far more often it is not.”
Why can't this country see and feel the better solution? The blame partly lies with the nearly conspiratorial nonexistence of this position in the greater media. The reporting on orphans in a disaster is nothing short of criminal. It's surely not an innocent oversight. It’s a straight-up blind spot borne of cultural ignorance and arrogant indifference to someone else’s needs. The press is all about The Moment—images at the airport (or new home) of wan Haitian tots, seemingly ecstatic at their circumstances on American shores, as if they’ve arrived at the Promised Land. To midwife these images relentlessly for nothing more than their emotional resonance is a journalistic travesty. By extension, this self-congratulatory mirror reflection reinforces a moral superiority with potentially tragic results for these children.
And guess what would happen if Haitian parents came to the States and filed suit once they track their children down? Good luck with that. Hell, how many high-profile white-on-white adoption battles have we seen on television when the adopting folks won’t let go?
SOS Children’s Villages (as well as UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations) has it right. It sets up and cares for the kids in a safe environment in their home countries until things settle. The children are documented, parents or relatives tracked down, and every possible attempt made at reunification.
If it takes months, so be it, because orphaned children’s advocacy groups have determined that more than 90 percent of the time these children do in fact have at least one living parent or close relative willing to take them in. But it’s a race against the clock.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says evacuating children and placing them in families abroad temporarily is also traumatic. "It is considered as an added disruption to the injury already suffered by the child.” How is such an overwhelming and consistent warning so heedlessly considered?
It’s because poor children in far-flung places have become commoditized. The demand is creating the supply. And a multibillion dollar adoption industry has grown out of the weeds to meet it in the middle.
You’d have thought we’d learned this lesson following Vietnam and the infamous (and well-named) “Operation Babylift." Thousands of Vietnamese children were hastily flown out of the country in April of 1975, with sketchy documentation on the children’s true family status. Years later there were huge messes when Vietnamese parents starting landing on our shores looking for their children.
Stout debates on the implications of inter–country adoption ensued, but here we are again, poised for yet another soul search.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.