Monday, February 15, 2010

Haitian “Orphans” and Adoption: Do We Really Know What’s Best?

By Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

This is the second in a series on Adopt-a-tude about Haitian adoptions and the church group that wreaked such havoc. More is coming out now about the decidedly mixed motives of church-group leader Laura Silsby. Click here and here to read provocative posts on Open Salon.

Fran addresses the situation from her perspective as an adoptive parent. The New York Times has run an interesting debate on “Haiti’s Children and the Adoption Question.”  But lost in much of the mainstream media discussion is a more complex appraisal of international adoption.

For most of us, exposure to acute poverty is a media event. But with Haiti’s proximity—both geographically and through extensive community ties—we have now been thrust from the security of the sidelines into an altered reality that exceeds not just our comfort zone but also all the usual touchstones we have formulated for helping those in need.

Front and center is the drama surrounding the recent arrest of American Christian do-gooders caught while trying to take undocumented Haitian children across the border to a supposed safe haven in the Dominican Republic. 

On February 4, Frank Bajak of the Associated Press filed a report on the scene that purportedly took place between the Baptists and a village of desperate Haitians: On a dirt soccer field in the middle of a quake-flattened town, more than 500 people came to hear what the U.S. Christians had to offer. Those gathered were told of the food and education the Baptists promised they would provide. With no documentation and only the promise that parents could visit their children, 33 kids were handed over.

What is so disturbing about this story is the ease with which those who had resources imagined what they could do and the willingness of the desperate for it be carried out.

In the days since the first media hullabaloo, the resources of the do-gooders have even been called into question. A recent article in the details the financial woes of Laura Silsby, the group’s self-appointed leader, including claims against her for unpaid wages. 

As reported on a local Idaho news station, the church did not officially sanction her. There’s a foreclosed mortgage on the house for her New Life Children's Refuge.

Brian Jack, once an employee for Silsby’s now shuttered online personal-shopping business, referred to her as “shady and only out for herself.”

Another big question that’s surfaced is why Silsby was taking children with parents out of the country when the group’s mission statement clearly stated their goal was to help children who had no parents.

Hardwired into this scenario is the issue of international adoptions. Propelled by poverty, lack of education, disasters and displacement, children are scattered like seeds to find (supposed) wealth and stability far from the history and deprivation they left behind.

Meanwhile, anxious to love, nurture, and give a child the life we insist they deserve, we middle-class Americans rush to judgment and assume much: What we have to offer has got to be better than what was left behind.

But, is it? What do we know of the complex web of circumstances behind each of these children’s lives?

Precious little.

Always baffling to me is how many children are born, like a throw of dice, into unplanned and often unsustainable lives. Not just because they may lack a father or an able mother, but because with their birth they become another mouth to feed, another body to clothe, or another child to give away. 

Does our love for our adopted children redress this inequity or do we, in our eagerness to provide, perpetuate a cycle of parental abdication? Where are the fault lines?

As an adoptive parent, I find myself confronted by similar questions. While I think the adoption of my son from Russia justifiable and legal, there is also much I do not know. I had to deal with a foreign bureaucracy; money and gifts had to be exchanged; and I was told what was necessary to qualify my son for his adoption. Pockets were lined

In a recent interview with John Hockenberry on NPR’s “The Takeaway,” Heather Paul, CEO of SOS Children’s Villages, the group asked to look after the 33 kidnapped children, said, “…this incident is proof-positive how important it is we put our children first…determine whether they are under parental care…and determine long-term outcomes.”

The most basic ethical question potential adoptive parents in Haiti must ask, as in the aftermath of the tsunami in South Asia and Operation Babylift in Vietnam after the war, is whether the parents or other adult family members of these children are alive.

But as Paul also made clear, every situation is different and circumstances complex. There can be real orphans, who are without loved ones, or social orphans, whose mother, father, or family members are unwilling or unfit to care for them.

The only sure bet when it comes to a natural disaster is the chaos that ensues. If institutions are fragile or deficient to begin with, as in Haiti, the situation is ripe for plunder and child trafficking. The unprotected, the least defensible, are always the most exploited.

That Silsby’s group did not appear to ask that first, basic question is reprehensible. International adoptions cannot be viewed as ethical if those with the resources and the power to adopt don’t start there. The more complicated political question of whether social orphans should be adopted—a question the government of Haiti, for one, has not resolved—comes next, with answers that vary depending on each child.

Yes, we want children to be well loved, safe, and well cared for, but before we rush in to airlift out, we need to make sure circumstances on the ground are resolved and stable. Perhaps placement in a new family is best, or perhaps best is helping that mother care for her child or children with the dignity and love she has to give.


Ken Hertz said...

Fran--great post and a thoughtful illumination of the questions surrounding this incident. As you say, the circumstances surrounding every child are unique and complex.

This particular case sounds like an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

fran cronin said...

hi ken: tx for reading..yes, this story is its own perfect storm: desperation and promise; no hope vs. hope; the presence of poverty and illiteracy, and in the vortex vulnerable and exploitable children. for those of us that love our kids it is so hard to fathom them as a commodity. while the story of laura silsby and her pack is fraught with unsettling inferences, it has forced to the front page the complexity of international adoptions and the need for vigilance and oversight. let's hope the outcome is what's really best for the kids and their families.