Haiti's Quake Orphans Will Stay Put, For Now
American adoption agencies say they are being swamped with calls from people so moved by Haiti's tragedy that they'd like to adopt an orphaned child.
The U.S. government is fast-tracking visas for hundreds of children whose adoptions were already in process, but officials say any wider effort will have to wait.
Kelly Rourke runs Building Arizona Families, an adoption agency in Surprise, Ariz. She says her agency has gotten calls from across the country.
We must be vigilant not to separate children from relatives in Haiti who are still alive but displaced, or to unknowingly assist criminals who traffic in children in such desperate times.
"Some are Haitian originals who have become U.S. citizens and want to go back and help their country," she says. "Others are families who are just looking to help and make a difference in somebody's life. We've had everybody from the family next-door to someone in Alaska."
Rourke has also fielded a good deal of misinformation.
"I received a call from someone who had heard that orphans had been flown over, and that he could just go choose one," Rourke says. "That's not how it works."
Adoptions from Haiti normally take three years. But with a number of orphanages destroyed, and babies and children going without food and sleeping in the open, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has bowed to pressure to help out.
A "humanitarian parole" will allow expedited visas for up to 900 orphans whose adoptions were already under way. The first planeload of 53 such orphans arrived in Pittsburgh this week.
DHS spokesman Matt Chandler says for the untold number of those newly orphaned by the earthquake, it's important that they stay in Haiti.
"We remain focused on family reunification," he says. "We must be vigilant not to separate children from relatives in Haiti who are still alive but displaced, or to unknowingly assist criminals who traffic in children in such desperate times."
For those reasons, Chandler says private flights to rescue children are strongly discouraged.
Tom DiFilipo, head of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an advocacy group for orphans, says there is good reason for such caution. With the best of intentions, DeFilipo says, Western countries have moved too fast after other crises.
As an example, he points to Vietnamese children adopted abroad after the war there ended in the mid-1970s. "As they grew up, they wanted to explore their history, where they came from, who their birth parents were. And we found out, unfortunately, that they had living relatives," he says.
DiFilipo says the same thing happened after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
In Haiti, where many bodies are being dumped in mass graves, there will be no official list of the dead. DeFilipo says that will make it tough to verify who has been orphaned.
"What that will require is for individuals to actually go into communities with pictures, or just with conversation, to find out which parents have missing children, to go and meet the child and make sure it's actually the right child," he says.
That process could take up to a year, DiFilipo says.
Rourke, the adoption agency director in Arizona, has no doubt that there will be a huge demand for international adoptions.
Before the earthquake, Haitian orphanages already were overflowing. Rourke says many of the children in them had been given up by their parents "because they couldn't feed, or clothe, or take care of their child, and their child was going to die if they didn't do something drastic."
Rourke says it was common practice for the Haitian government to approve such children for international adoption, with the consent of the birth parents.
Despite the crisis now, Rourke says a delay in new adoptions may be a good thing for prospective American parents.
Adoption is a lifetime commitment, she says. "Families who had not considered adopting before, and had not had that on their heart, for them to all of a sudden make a decision in a 24-hour time frame is something that we want to be really cautious about."
For families who are certain they want to adopt a Haitian child, Rourke says all she can do for now is put their names on a waiting list.
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