The Big Business of Haitian Adoption
Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas
“Over the past 30 years, the number of families from wealthy countries wanting to adopt children from other countries has grown substantially. At the same time, lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children, takes centre stage. Abuses include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents, and bribery.”
UNICEF expresses strong support for the Hague Intercountry Adoption Convention, 2007
In the international adoption industry, Haiti is now a hot spot, and that trend dramatically intensified in the wake of the recent earthquake. Amid the spontaneous movement of global solidarity, the frenzy to save Haitian “orphans” stood in sharp contrast with the corresponding response to Hurricane Katrina some years ago. From the first horror-filled days following the earthquake, media coverage of potentially adoptive parents in Europe and the US highlighted their concerns, as planeloads of critically needed medical supplies and resources diverted from the Port-au-Prince airport often made room for private “rescue missions.”
Such happened on January 18 when, in response to a dramatic appeal from two of his constituents then in Haiti, the governor of Pennsylvania was allowed to land in a chartered jet to rescue children from the Bresma orphanage. Of those 54 children, 12 later placed in foster care were found to have been airlifted to the US without proper documentation, and in violation of Haitian laws, the Hague Adoption Convention, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Caught in the same situation, albeit on a less grandiose scale, the American missionaries from Idaho also share the story of Bresma in the way they began to recruit Haitian children for their would-be adoption venture.
The Economics of International Adoption
In December 2002, according to Pittsburgh Magazine (Love and Haiti, January 2009), a Pennsylvania student learned–in a casual conversation, as she was waitressing–about a Haitian woman wanting to open an orphanage in Haiti, and later went there to meet her. Quoting the girl, the story continues, “A guy heard what we were doing and told us about three kids who needed help. We drove three hours, then walked up a mountain for another three hours and found these kids who were alone in a house, no parents at home, severely malnourished, near death.” With her Haitian associate, she waited until the mother returned and “willingly” let them “take the children-to save them.” For lack of dedicated facilities, those first recruits remained in the home of the Haitian associate, but in less than eight short years the Bresma orphanage had blossomed to include approximately 130 children (or 150 according to other press reports) divided among three houses.
The Idaho missionaries, who were caught in their smuggling attempt across the Haitian border to the Dominican Republic, also took to the mountains of Haiti in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in order to recruit children from desperate parents. They offered to provide educational opportunities and did not mention the possibility of adoption. Had they succeeded in their attempt, they too might have developed a successful organization, become legitimate members of the transnational adoption community, and connected with various agencies to export children to the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere.
Since birth control and abortion have decreased the number of white adoptable babies in wealthy nations, the international adoption industry navigates through the laws of supply and demand, generating six-figure incomes (reported on IRS 990’s) for executives of non-profit or even faith-based organizations, as well as untold profits for private companies. It is a self-regulating system where potential clients pay home study fees either to the very agencies who assess their readiness for adoptive parenthood, or to those that they recommend; it is a world of interconnected advocacy groups, foundations, domestic and international agencies, local orphanages, with legions of social workers, staff, lawyers, notaries, facilitators, and intermediaries of all sorts. The industry’s political clout at the highest levels of state and national governments allowed for a disregard of Haitian and international law, as children were airlifted by private or military planes to the US and other destinations following the earthquake.
In that chaotic situation, the humanitarian parole hurriedly granted to the displaced children in various countries also illustrates the political power at play. As of February 25, 2010, the US Department of State reports a total of 330 adoptions from Haiti for the year 2009, while in response to the earthquake, 45 “orphans” received IR3/4 (adoption-related) visas, and over 800 “orphans pending adoption” were granted humanitarian parole. Sadly, some of those children already traumatized by the earthquake and facing language barriers, have ended in foster care with total strangers, or with “sponsors” who, as prospective adoptive parents, had “bonded” with them through a visit or some agency-provided photographs. In the US, nearly 100 adoption agencies connect parents from wealthy countries to orphanages in Haiti, whose sponsors mainly include fundamentalist and evangelical Christian churches and organizations, as well as Mormon connections. “Strange missionaries swoop down on Port-au-Prince,” reported the French newspaper Le Figaro during the frantic days of the airlift, amid the mounting fear of child trafficking and subsequent Haitian government intervention.
Rules and Regulations
In an Information Note to States and Central Authorities, the Secretariat of the Hague Conference noted “with great concern the tragic situation in Haiti,” reminding that “the Hague Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption provides protection to children and their families against the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad. […] even if Haiti is not party to the 1993 Hague Convention, all receiving States should apply these standards and safeguards.” In the same spirit, Article 21(b) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Haiti is a signatory, stipulates that “inter-country adoption may be considered as an alternative means of child’s care, if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin.”
In the US, the laws relevant to the adoption process include: those of the child’s country of birth concerning individual eligibility for adoption and other activities in that country, the laws of the adoptive parents state of residence about their qualification to adopt, US immigration laws, and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption of which the US is a signatory. The US adoption process also contains differences between Hague Convention and Non-Convention countries, which raise questions as to whether or not the recent airlift of Haitian children would have happened, had their country been a signatory of that convention. In addition, two categories of immigrant visas are issued to adoptees prior to their entry in the United States. The IR-3 requires that the adoptive parent(s) show evidence of having “personally seen the child” before the issuance of the final adoption act; and the IR-4, that they must provide a notarized statement attesting their intention “to re-adopt the child according to the laws of their U.S. state of residence.” And that leaves open the question of what happens if the adoptive parents do not to like what they see.
A federal tax credit, up to a maximum of $12,150 for the year 2009, is also available per eligible child, to help defray the cost of domestic or international adoption, and allows carry over within five years of any balance in excess of the taxpayer(s)’ liability; the credit applies to each eligible child, even in the case of multiple adoptions in the same family. Adoption agencies and advocates are now mobilizing their constituencies to support legislation in favor of expanding the current federal tax credit, scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Other lobbying efforts involve the Families for Orphan Act, introduced both in the House and the Senate, primarily to streamline the matching of Haitian children orphaned in the earthquake with families in the United States.
Procurement and Politics
“The provision of alternative care should never be undertaken with a prime purpose of furthering the political,
religious or economic goals of the providers.”
UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, 2009
In addition to tax credits and government subsidies, further incentives to international adoption, include foundation-supported direct grants, unsecured or no-interest loans, related credit cards and tax-deferred savings options, as well as employee adoption benefits. While the cost of adopting a child from the US foster system varies between $0 and $2,500, the charges to adopt a child from an orphanage in Haiti can easily reach $30,000 or more, and US officials caution against payment of “donations” and “expediting” fees in the home country. The lengthy wait of 18 to 24 months also precludes the adoption of infants and, for now, the Haitian government has temporarily suspended all new adoptions.
As US taxpayers subsidize an international adoption industry whose purchasing power contributes to separate families abroad, children in need of parents continue to languish in the US foster care system. In a resolution on Adoption and Orphan Care dated June 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention, considering among other matters that the “satanic powers and the ravages of sin have warred against infants and children,” and that its churches “must be concerned for the evangelism of children—including those who have no parents,” resolved to call “on each Southern Baptist family to pray for guidance as to whether God is calling them to adopt or foster a child or children;” and to encourage “pastors and church leaders to preach and teach on God’s concern for orphans …commend churches and ministries that are equipping families to provide financial and other resources to those called to adopt, through grants, matching funds, or loans …encourage local churches to champion the evangelism of and ministry to orphans around the world, and to seek out ways to energize Southern Baptists behind this mission.” And finally, “…to join with other evangelical Christians in setting aside a special Sunday each year to focus upon our adoption in Christ and our common burden for the orphans of the world…”
Thus, as the world overwhelmingly responded to the earthquake in Haiti, and the media covered the plight of white parents sharing their anguish about the fate of Haitian sons or daughters that they had often met only in pictures, an outpouring of sympathy for the “orphans” generated countless offers of adoption from the general public. Busily recruiting potential foster parents, the adoption network sought assistance from various sources, including government officials, to deliver supplies to orphanages in Haiti, transport the children to their “forever families” in the US and abroad, and thus make room for new earthquake “orphans.” Among such initiatives, the Chinese Children Adoption International, a Colorado-based Christian organization was able to land by private jet in Port-au-Prince on January 18, as did the Bresma rescue group, and the Médecins sans Frontières portable hospital plane was diverted; the Salt Lake Tribune reported from Utah that a tentative agreement between a local adoption agency and the Church of Scientology to fly children from a Haitian orphanage fell through, and other options were later used; the Miami-based Catholic Charities considered to undertake Operation Pierre Pan, a replica of the ill-fated airlift of children from Cuba in the early days of the Castro revolution. It took the Idaho missionaries fiasco to reveal that most of the “orphans” had parents or relatives who, because of poverty, had placed them in what they often believed to be a temporary foster arrangement for educational opportunities and better living conditions.
The Human Factor
Along with fiscal incentives to international adoption, export-led policies from rich countries contribute to increase the related supply of available children in the developing world. Consequently, in Haiti the reduction of farmers’ income, low minimum wage (now about $4 a day), and widespread unemployment, added to corrupt government practices, social inequities, and a string of natural disasters, have led to migration, despair, civil disturbances, urban sprawl, as well as the proliferation of NGOs and orphanages. The latter fed into the informal foster care traditions that poorer families had maintained within their extended kin group and through the restavèk system, a form of indentured servitude initially reminiscent of 19th century practices in Europe and the US, which progressively worsened as the well-to-do began to shun the custom.
Currently, the cost of a single international adoption of a Haitian child would go a long way toward strengthening a number of nuclear or extended local families, and help children develop within their culture and environment. With assistance from Haitian officials and aid groups such as Save the Children, UNICEF has launched a child registry similar to the one created during the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, to reunite displaced children with their parents or extended family members. Mounting concerns about child trafficking recently led, in Bolivia, to the arrest of adults transporting a group of Haitian youth for forced labor and sexual exploitation, and a number of children are said to have disappeared from Haitian hospitals immediately after the earthquake. The French newspaper, Le Monde, also reported an ongoing situation of child trafficking along the Haitian-Dominican border, as well as the fast-tracking of adoption procedures, and evacuations of more than 1,000 children through various embassies in Port-au-Prince.
Adult adoptees stories reflect positive experiences as well as deep scars and pain, and the placement of Haitian children among organized groups traditionally unsympathetic to Blacks raises questions about the preservation of their culture and racial identity, as stated in international agreements. Compounding the initial shock from the earthquake, the added traumas of sudden separation, removal from familiar surroundings, as well as language and cultural adaptation, may increase the risks for PTSD, adoption stress, and attachment disorder. The State Department encourages adoptive parents to develop a support network and take advantage of all the resources available after an adoption.
Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas
March 10, 2010