Orphans of disaster

Updated February 3.

Amidst the horror and heartbreak in Haiti, there is the added atrocity of children losing their parents.

Because there are no real numbers to put on the death and destruction from Haiti’s earthquake, the estimators have free reign. With regard to orphans – children who lost one or both parents in the earthquake – there is a claim that a million children were orphaned. Such estimates are almost certainly too high, says the charity SOS Children’s Villages – who report that the number of orphans who can’t be reunited with family members after such a disaster is usually closer to 5% of the death toll, though it could be somewhat higher in this case. If they’re right, the wild estimates could be costly:

The less accurate and more exaggerated the figures, the more risk of rapid removal of children, who may still have parents searching for them, from their country, their culture and their family. Some children already in the process of adoption out of Haiti should of course be allowed to leave. Perhaps ones already identified as orphans before the earthquake. But children who may have just been orphaned should be cared for, counselled and loved locally, whilst family is traced…

Those expedited adoptions have led to a group of 53 orphans coming to Pittsburgh, children who were already in the adoption pipeline but whose paperwork was accelerated by the Haitian government. The news prompted hundreds of calls from other potential parents interested in fostering or adopting the children of disaster – and a similar operation was underway to the Netherlands.

Without a stable government, aid agencies warn, Haitian children are at dire risk of trafficking – for labor, sex slavery, or adoption – and there is no way to administer international adoptions with adequate safeguards. Case in point is the group of American religious zealots who attempted to drive a bus load of children over the border into the Dominican Republic – without adoption documents – in what they describe as an effort to rescue them and care for them in a a new orphanage, as reported by the Associated Press:

It has since been reported that the Americans lured parents to relinquish their children on the promise that they would return after gaining education in the Dominican Republic – so not only did many of them have families, but those families did not intend for the children to be adopted.

The U.S. has pledged to do all it can to facilitate these adoptions quickly without compromising international standards for adoption procedures – as of late January, the State Department reports, “humanitarian parole has been granted to almost 500 Haitian orphans in the process of being adopted, several hundred of whom are now in the United States,” and the U.S. is working with the Haitian government to “establish a transparent and orderly procedure for securing departure approval for children already in the adoption process.” Such efforts presumably would not include the ambitious archdiocese of Miami’s plan to airlift many Haitian children to Florida, as was done with thousands of children after the Cuban Revolution, in a secret operation dubbed Operation Pedro Pan.

Haiti is currently the #8 source of international adoptions into the U.S., with 2,712 children entering as adopted orphans in the past 10 years. There are half a million Haitian-born Blacks in the U.S. at last count, but more trace their ancestry to the first former slave republic.

Disaster’s children

The earthquake recalls the controversy over orphans from the South Asian Tsunami in December 2004. Some of the affected countries’ adherence to the Hague Convention – which includes standards of verification that children are truly orphaned – along with opposition by some Muslims toward adoption by non-Muslims, blocked the attempts of would-be parents from the U.S. and other rich countries to adopt children who had lost their parents in the tsunami.

Such disasters seem to provoke some religiously-motivated parents into considering international adoption-as-rescue mission, discussed ably by Adoptiontalk. She quotes a religious adoption charity’s note of caution – one you’d hope wasn’t necessary:

While it is entirely possible that the Lord is using this tragedy to open your eyes to the needs of orphans and the possibility of adoption, you may want to proceed with caution if this tragedy is the first time you have ever considered adoption. . . .

Losing family members – parents or children – takes many tolls. Parents and children often support each other economically, at different life stages, so such losses exacerbate poverty. And lost family members mean lifetimes of love, parenting and caring lost too. When the family loss happens with a traumatic event such as earthquake or tsunami, the hardship is compounded by disrupted housing, schools, healthcare, other friends and relatives, and semblance of routine. (Devastating mental health impact has been documented from the tsunami, including post-traumatic stress in many children, but we’ll never know the full extent of that damage because of the limited services to treat as well as document it.)

Unfolding at a slower rate but ultimately more catastrophic, the AIDS epidemic has left millions of orphans. The United Nations estimates more than 11 million children in Africa alone lost one or both parents to AIDS. There is a reasonable debate over these estimates, since lack of health care services goes along with poor data quality, but “millions” is good enough to make the point. (In the U.S., about 100,000 children have lost their mother to AIDS.)

Whose suffering?

The crisis predictably brings out one of the dark sides of international adoption – the attitude that international adoption is rescuing children from inferior cultures, and that delays and “paperwork” in the process, which are hopefully designed to insure the wellbeing of the children, create hardship for adoptive parents. After the earthquake, the suffering of the waiting parents – with which I sympathize, especially for those whose future adoptees have already been identified – has drawn dramatic media attention. That storyline is bitterly captured here:

…this story is not about the children, or their future. White adoptive parents are the real victims of this tragedy, and it is their pain, and their experience of trauma that propels the story. If the children mattered, following up the trauma of a devastating earthquake with the trauma of complete cultural, racial, linguistic, and geographical displacement would be questionable if not unthinkable.


The Haitian earthquake calls attention to global problems, and highlights the particular risks of family loss and disruption for children, which can be positive. As with global poverty, however, even when international adoptions are great for children – with proper safeguards and support – this can’t be seen as a solution. After all, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1 per day (the children of whom often labor to help make possible the standard of living that will support their orphaned compatriots after they are adopted abroad).

The adoption response reminds me of the rescue scenes. As the second week after the earthquake dragged on, the resources – including media spotlights – poured into saving a tiny handful of possible survivors still buried in the rubble may have produced positive attention among potential charitable donors. And how can you not celebrate the survival of a child pulled from that debris? But it also represented efforts diverted from the cheaper, more effective work of providing clean water and shelter to thousands of people just blocks away.


Filed under In the news

10 responses to “Orphans of disaster

  1. Wow. Excellent post. Thank you!


  2. “the attitude that international adoption is rescuing children from inferior cultures, and that delays and “paperwork” in the process, which are hopefully designed to insure the wellbeing of the children, create hardship for adoptive parents”

    We have been in the process of adopting a child from Haiti for 3 years, and in that time I’ve met many other adoptive parents. I’ve never met anyone with the attitude you describe above. The delays in paperwork, which were taking up to 3 years in Haiti, were not about insuring wellbeing of the children. Do you support the idea that it takes that long – 3 years to approve an adoptive family? It’s not about the hardship that wait has created for parents. It’s about what it has done to the children – to be left in orphanages during their formative years while their paperwork sits in piles waiting months to years for the next signature. Your proposal that this wait was for the wellbeing of the child is a joke. You should probably familiarize yourself more with the processes before making such claims.


  3. Kristen – notice I said “hopefully designed to…” I have not doubt there are delays that serve no reasonable purpose, and that this contributes to the hardships endured by the children as well as the parents. The blog I linked to cited examples of the attitude I was describing.


    • You are an academic – certainly you see the problem in using an opinion blog like Resist Racism or Outlandish Remarks as a source for attitudes of adopting parents. Both of these blogs are incredibly subjective and extremely critical of transracial adoption – creating a narrative of the “colonialist baby-stealers” without providing any data to back it up. Both blogs are very creative in perpetuating the selfish/clueless adoptive parents meme, when in fact neither blogger (to my knowledge) does any actual research into attitudes or behaviors beyond whatever clip they can spin to further their outrage. Nor will either of these bloggers allow comments that question the factual integrity of their writing. The article you cited on Resist Racism is rife with factual errors, and while it’s very provocative , it’s also very fictional. You damage your own credibility by citing them as proof that the attitudes you describe actually exist. That would be like linking to Rush Limbaugh to gauge the motives of an average democrat.


      • I certainly wouldn’t rely on resistracism for a description of adoptive parents’ attitudes — their argument is sometimes with a straw man of adoptive parenting. The Outlandish Remarks post at least had substantial links and quotes from the articles that they considered offensive, so you can evaluate them for yourself. I hope that providing a link to an argument isn’t taken as an uncritical endorsement.

        I have personally witnessed what I would call “the attitude that international adoption is rescuing children from inferior cultures” on the part of a small number of adoptive parents — and some people who are not adoptive parents but who want to support us. I think the existence of that attitude — even if not representative — is a problem worth discussing.

        Thanks for your comments.


  4. Pingback: W(h)ither intercountry adoption? « Family Inequality

  5. Pingback: Philip N. Cohen: W(h)ither Intercountry Adoption? | Twitmerlin - News, Celebs Gossip, Social Media

  6. Pingback: Philip N. Cohen: W(h)ither Intercountry Adoption? | Loans in

  7. Pingback: Citizenship: Because I said so « Family Inequality

  8. Pingback: Evangelicals, adoption, and adoption corruption « Family Inequality

Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s