Ideally, international adoptions are closely regulated so that only children who actually need to be adopted are. But adoption is a money-making enterprize for the agencies and attorneys who engage in it. That inevitably means that corners often are cut, rules ignored, palms greased. At various times, countries like Vietnam and China have simply stopped placing children outside the country in part because the line between child adoption and child trafficking had become too blurred.
This article tells us that that is exactly what happened in the months that followed the earthquake in Haiti last January (New York Times, 8/4/10). As we know, many Americans, some with the best of motivations, descended on the devastated country and began removing children they deemed available for adoption in the U.S. The chaos of post-earthquake Haiti made that possible because government agencies normally entrusted with controlling the adoption trade were hamstrung by destroyed records, lack of electricity, inability to communicate and the almost entire absence of effective policing.
But the practice was not confined to a few rogue elements.
Leading the way was the Obama administration, which responded to the crisis, and to the pleas of prospective adoptive parents and the lawmakers assisting them, by lifting visa requirements for children in the process of being adopted by Americans…
Under a sparingly used immigration program, called humanitarian parole, adoptions were expedited regardless of whether children were in peril, and without the screening required to make sure they had not been improperly separated from their relatives or placed in homes that could not adequately care for them.
Some Haitian orphanages were nearly emptied, even though they had not been affected by the quake or licensed to handle adoptions. Children were released without legal documents showing they were orphans and without regard for evidence suggesting fraud.
The article tells the story of a pair of Haitian teenagers whom a Minnesota couple, the Stroots, had attempted to adopt prior to the earthquake. Their father had placed them for adoption under the mistaken belief that they would simply be going to America to be educated and, that mission accomplished, returned home. Once he understood the actual consequences of adoption, he withdrew his consent and the couple’s petition for adoption was denied by a Minnesota court.
Astonishingly enough, after the earthquake and the dramatic expansion of U.S. policy by the Obama Administration, the adoption went through in record time.
Homeland Security, which earlier had denied visas to the children, reversed course without consulting the children”s biological father or the Stroots. “One day, we”re being told we can”t have the kids,’ Mrs. Stroot said. “The next minute, we”re getting a call telling us we need to get them winter coats. It was crazy.’
The children’s father? He went entirely unmentioned in the court order that took his children forever.
According to the article, the case of the Stroots and their new Haitian children are far from alone; similar scenarios are playing out all across the U.S. Some children have been taken from Haiti only to be bounced from one temporary placement to another as adoptive parents change their minds, courts dither and attorneys try to figure out who these children are, whether they have parents or other relatives, etc.
It’s a good article, but it lacks a few important details. The first is historical context. A comprehensive history of adoption in America has never been written, but it’s clear that the willingness of social reformers who believed themselves to be acting “in the best interests of the children,” routinely ignored parental and kinship ties in favor of placing children in adoptive care. Thus, in the nineteenth century, the Children’s Aid Society of New York snatched thousands of children off the streets and placed them on “orphan trains” bound for midwest farms in need of labor. According to its own estimates, some 47% of CAS’s “orphans” weren’t orphans at all.
Second, the history of adoption records an inexorable flow of children from the poor to the more affluent that continues today. It continues with or without the adoption of Haitian children; it continues irrespective of natural disaster. And of course it is not necessarily a bad thing.
But the rosy scenario of deprived children coming to a better life with loving parents and clean laundry has a decidedly darker side to it. Poor parents often have their children taken without their consent and natural disaster gives a convenient cover for the practice. Too poor to mount a legal challenge and unaware of the ramifications of adoption, parents in Haiti and other parts of the world can be crushed by a legal system doing what it so often does in all areas of law – favor the affluent at the expense of the poor.
To be blunt, the well-to-do sometimes use their money and influence with courts to purchase the children of the poor whether the poor like it or not.
As in CAS times, children residing in orphanages aren’t necessarily orphans. Poor parents in countries like Haiti often place children in orphanages where they know they’ll receive food, shelter and a modicum of care. Those parents assume – and the orphanages agree – that they’ll return for their children when they’re able. By contrast, Americans assume that any child in an orphanage is a child with no parents.
That in turn is why the Obama Administration’s rush to clear away even the lowest hurdles in the way of adopting Haitian children virtually assured that some who were taken didn’t need to be.
The requirements were written so broadly, adoption experts said, that almost any child in an orphanage could qualify as long as there were e-mails, letters or photographs showing that the child had some connection to a family in the United States. And by the time Ms. Napolitano announced the program, military flights filled with children were already in the air.
“The standard of proof was very low,’ said Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a nonprofit group that is a leading voice on American adoption policy. “That”s why the administration ended the program as quickly as they did,’ she added, “because they worried the longer it was open, the more opportunities they would give people to manufacture evidence.’
Finally, the article doesn’t mention the curious phenomenon of American parents hell-bent on adopting Haitian children in the wake of the destruction there. It’s curious because there are always plenty of children in foster care in the U.S. who need adopting. Indeed, at any given time, there are over 400,000 such children, while only about 75,000 stranger adoptions occur each year.
So why the need for a Haitian child? Racism is often cited as the reason for white parents refusing to adopt children out of U.S. foster care, but then why the sudden embrace of Haitian children? Likewise, it’s said that adoptive parents want infants, not older children and certainly not teenagers. But that too is belied by the adoption of Haitian children of all ages.
It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the urge to adopt after natural disaster is sometimes driven by factors other than the welfare of children. One such factor might be a sudden impulse to help, sort of like joining the bucket brigade at a fire. That would explain why some American adults suddenly wanted a Haitian child, but a few months after the quake, no longer did. But of course raising a child is not like putting out a fire. It takes a much longer and greater commitment and the person shouldn’t do so expecting a reward.
And, given the circumstances of the Haitian disaster and the Obama Administration’s response to it, it’s easy to conclude that one of the motivating factors for adoptive parents was the ease with which the thing could be done. Few inconvenient background checks or Haitian parents butting in and spoiling what became, in a matter of days, an adoption bonanza.