Haiti adoption fights mirror desperation
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – Foreigners detained, Haitians enraged, children caught in the middle: The scenario that played out this week echoed the case of 10 Americans caught trying to spirit youngsters out of this earthquake-ravaged nation.
This time it turned out differently. Six U.S.-bound orphans seized by Haitian police Saturday as they were about board a flight for Miami were handed over to the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday. They are scheduled to leave Wednesday afternoon for new homes and families in the United States.
The two cases highlight the perils of trying to remove youngsters from this desperate country.
At the very moment Haiti’s impoverished children are in greatest need – and well-meaning foreigners most willing to help – fears of child trafficking are making it harder than ever for them to leave the Western Hemisphere’s poorest land.
Fears were exacerbated by the case of 10 U.S. Baptist missionaries who were stopped late last month trying to take a busload of 33 children to the Dominican Republic without proper documentation.
Thousands of desperate Haitian parents, unable to care for their own children, have shown themselves eager to give the youngsters away in hopes of giving them a better life. But they are terrified they will be tricked by predators who will enslave or sexually abuse the kids.
The government has been nearly powerless to manage the situation.
“The ability of Haiti under best circumstances to look out for the rights of its children is laughable,” said J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, an anthropology professor at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College who worked with Haitian street children for 15 years.
UNICEF estimated 380,000 “orphans” even before the earthquake. The definition is loose, as tens of thousands have at least one living parent.
Haiti’s government immediately halted new adoptions in the chaos that followed the Jan. 12 quake, allowing only those already approved to move forward.
That chill hardened into a freeze after Saturday’s incident. A U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, said the latest drama held up the departure of 50 orphans approved for U.S. adoption.
It took the U.S. ambassador and Haiti’s prime minister to iron out Tuesday what turned out to be an ugly misunderstanding.
Four women including an adoptive mother from Minnesota arrived at the airport with six children ages 1 to 5 from a Cap-Haitien orphanage. The U.S. Embassy official carrying the documents needed to usher them through immigration was running late.
Suddenly, a group of 20 men rushed to block them, cursing them and screaming “‘You can’t take our children!”‘
The women were briefly detained, but the children wound up spending three days sleeping on the ground in a tent-city social services home, according to their escorts from the Children of The Promise orphanage.
The children didn’t have bottled formula or sippy cups and the youngest, a boy, developed diarrhea, said Maria O’Donovan, Haiti field director for orphanage where the children originated.
Jan Bonnema, the Minnesota-based founder of the Cap-Haitien orphanage, said the children would fly out of Haiti to Miami on Wednesday afternoon on a charter.
On Thursday, the adoptive parents will be able to take their children home, she told The Associated Press, adding that two are going to Montana, two to Minnesota and one each to Iowa and Pennsylvania.
Still in detention at a Port-au-Prince police station, were two of the 10 U.S. Baptist missionaries arrested after being halted at the border on Jan. 29 with the busload of orphans.
Their eight associates, most from Idaho, were released last week and flew back home to the United States.
The two who were detained, Laura Silsby, 40, and Charisa Coulter, 24, were questioned Tuesday by the judge in the case, Bernard Saint-Vil. He said he would not consider their release without further investigation of orphanages the women visited last year in northern Haiti.
The Baptists said they only wished to rescue desperate children from suffering. But Silsby’s original story – that the children were orphans or from distant relatives – didn’t check out. The AP determined that all had living parents who willingly handed them over, believing it was for safekeeping.
Away from the cameras, the cases of the illegal removal of Haitian children are plenty.
On Feb. 14 and 15, Dominican border troops rescued 22 minors – 12 girls and 10 boys between ages 7 and 16 – being brought illegally across the border in all-terrain vehicles by Haitians accused of human trafficking, authorities said.
The case was not uncommon.
Haiti’s children have long been a commodity – used for adoption, sex trafficking or as unpaid domestic labor. Adoptions can yield as much as $7,000 in fees – a relative fortune in a country where the per capita yearly wage is under $1,000, Kovats-Bernat said.
Haitian officials put it bluntly.
“Adoption is a synonym for trafficking,” said Haiti’s immigration director Roland Chavannes.
That’s because the system is broken for dealing with children whose families are either no longer alive or cannot support them. Some end up in full-time nurseries that house babies and toddlers flagged for adoption.
Those generally considered too old for adoptions go to orphanages, often dead-end institutions in slums and remote areas where abuse and mistreatment are rife. A number of high-profile trials currently in U.S. and Canadian courts involve people arrested in Haiti for sexually abusing the children in their care.
Thousands of other children become child servants within Haiti. They are known as “restaveks” – from the French for “stays with” – often working for families only slightly better off, or in a more centrally located slum.
Into this murky world often wade well-meaning would-be adoptive foreign parents, often with no knowledge of the local culture or language and quick to take the word of intermediaries.
Before the quake they could be seen at the better hotels around Port-au-Prince, imparting bits of English while trying to understand infants’ Creole babble as officials wrangled over their paperwork in Haitian courts.
In late 2009, Jeanne Bernard Pierre, the head of Haiti’s child welfare agency, told the AP that it was badly underfunded and understaffed and unable to properly monitor orphanages.
Since the quake, she said Tuesday, it’s only gotten worse.
“People are taking advantage of this tragedy to arrange everything they want to arrange,” she said.
The situation has left struggling Haitians in the middle.
Juna Therant, 28, was having enough trouble feeding and clothing her little girl before the earthquake.
She not only lost her home and relatives but found herself caring for two nephews and niece when her brother-in-law died and younger sister disappeared.
She said Tuesday that wants to put the three children, ages 3 to 10, up for foreign adoption.
But she also fears that they will be taken illegally.
“When they leave without papers it’s like kidnapping.”
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul, Evens Sanon and Niko Price in Haiti and Chris Williams in Minneapolis contributed to this report.