The AP this weekend reported that all 33 of the children being transported out of Haiti by the arrested American group had living relatives. This finding is being used, appropriately, to broadcast one very important point: the importance of family reunification efforts. Most children classified as “unaccompanied minors” following a natural disaster do have living relatives. Clearly, after immediate physical needs are met, first priority for such children should always be reuniting them with families if at all possible.
However, several addition observations should also be made that the headlines seem to miss:
1) The children’s families sent them with the group voluntarily. As the Miami Herald described, “A reporter’s visit Saturday to the rubble-strewn Citron slum, where 13 of the children lived, led to their parents, all of whom said they turned their youngsters over to the missionary group voluntarily in hopes of getting them to safety.” This doesn’t excuse errors made by the group, but it does set the matter in clearer context.
2) The primary issue wasn’t adoption. Prior to traveling to Haiti, the group expressed hope on their website that they’d eventually be able to enable adoptions from the orphanage they planned to build in the Dominican Republic. However, there’s no indication the group intended to send children that still had living parents off to the U.S. Nor would U.S. law have allowed them to do so without thorough documentation. It appears this general portrayal—mostly by rumor and innuendo—was promoted by groups that wanted to associate adoption with amateurism or bad actors.
3) It’s unhelpful to equate this effort with human trafficking. Circumventing Haiti’s laws to get the children to care in the Dominican Republic was both wrong and unwise. However, to equate these actions with “human trafficking”—one of the most vile crimes imaginable, often perpetrated with the goal of slavery or sexual exploitation—is very unhelpful. It casts far worse light on the Baptist group and far better light on traffickers than is deserved.
4) This is certainly not the worst thing happening in Haiti. Right now, children are experience untold evil within Haiti, from amputations and severe hunger to household slavery and worse. Even the U.N. has affirmed that it is “failing to adequately manage the relief effort.” This isn’t necessarily an indictment of the U.N. It’s just that responding to disaster, especially in the developing world, is always going to be difficult and messy.
5) Broad misunderstanding of the term orphan. The NY Times article on the issue began with the words, “There is not one orphan among the 33 children that a U.S. Baptist group tried to take from Haiti…” The U.N. definition of orphan, however, includes children that have lost one or both parents. Thus, while the children did have living relatives, many of them were—by U.N. definition—orphans. This isn’t a particularly important point, aside from the fact that the decision by the U.N. to use this definition of an orphan for all of its official statistics has created widespread misunderstanding.