The Rising Conflict Over Haitian Orphans and Adoption

Over the weeks ahead and beyond, we can expect a rising conflict over the issue of adoption and Haitian orphans.

On one side will be those emphasizing large-scale models of response to human need led by government and globe-spanning NGOs.  While affirming international adoption in theory (at least as a “last resort”), these groups often quietly work to make these adoptions as difficult and rare as possible.  On the other side of the issue will be smaller groups, agencies and advocates championing adoption and emphasizing the importance of a permanent home and family for the well-being of children.

An article in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune hints at this conflict over international adoption, which has, in fact, been simmering for years—mostly out of the public eye.

In this time of heart-rending pictures, potent emotion and unforgettable stories about newly-made orphans, those who wish to affirm the importance of adoption have a dual call.  We must stand for the conviction that every child needs a family.  At the same time, we should do all we can to avoid the sensationalism and reflexive responses that adoption critics rightly point to as highly problematic.  It’s important that we consistently affirm:

1)       Our first focus after disaster like Haiti’s earthquake needs to be on ensuring basic necessities of food, water, shelter, medical care and security for all those affected—not merely airlifting out a small percentage of those impacted.

2)      After basic needs are met, aggressive efforts should be rapidly engaged to reunite apparently orphaned with their parents or extended families.

3)      Only after this process has been completed should children be considered for adoption.  The search process should be as thorough as possible.  However, it is unacceptable to relegate countless orphans to institutional settings for years (the UN recommends at least 2 years) for this purpose.

4)      Finally, adoption advocates must affirm clearly that adoption will almost certainly never come close to meeting the needs of every orphan.  Thus, we must articulate and show by our actions that we are serious about finding the best, most nurturing and most permanent care possible for every orphan.  Emphasis should be placed on a continuum of options that place every child in the most permanent and nurturing environment available.  To the fullest extent possible, this should be with a family via adoption—in country if available, and international if not.  When adoption is not possible, permanent, family-like options should be consistently preferred to large, institutional settings.

Advocates for the adoption of orphans should do all they can to make common cause with others who care for orphans, even when they disagree on the best way to approach care.   At the same time, we have every reason to be bold and unequivocal in standing for the proposition that every child needs a family.