Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Saving Kids Right and Left

Growing up during the 1960s, the two scariest movie scenes I ever sat through were the flying monkey scene in The Wizard of Oz when they capture Toto, and the child catcher scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As an adopted child, I knew how easy it might be for someone to come gather me up and cart me away into the netherworld of terror and loneliness where my parents might never find me again. I wonder in fact if my fears were any different than any of my peers who were not adopted. I doubt it. Being a kid means some understanding of how vulnerable you are.

The news story out of Haiti this week is the odd little rescue mission 10 American citizens attempted for 33 Haitian children. This story has all sorts of traction but very little substance -- at least so far. Looking at the photos of the members of this group and watching them interviewed on the nightly news, it's kind of hard to see them as child snatchers or baby traffickers. However, it does make clear that for now at least Haiti is ground zero in the cultural implications of adoption -- and for the broad nature of orphans in the world today.

You're not really hearing details in the mainstream media (check NPR's Talk of the Nation here though for something interesting), but Haiti is one of a number of countries where abandoning children is essentially a societal issue requiring the development of multiple orphanages, child welfare institutions, and a heap of funding (which, of course, Haiti doesn't have). According to one report in 2008, 173,000 Haitian children were given up for domestic servitude in something called Restavek.

"Through the Restavek system, parents unable to care for their children send them to relatives or strangers living in urban areas supposedly to receive care and education in exchange for housework. But the reality is a life of hardship and abuse; enslaved by their so called "hosts", the children seldom attend school."

Observing the humanitarian scene in Haiti right now, even before the seemingly stupid efforts of this naive bunch of Idaho Baptists, the importance of rules and limitations on what happens to orphans (from 1 day of age to 21 years) in any developing nation seems to be pretty obvious. Other reports indicate as many as 300,000 unpaid child servants in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. If you wear clothes made in those countries or put their sugar in your coffee, you may well be contributing to a very serious, under-reported global criminal conspiracy.

Without a very clear, defined and accepted state sanctioning of who is to care for or take responsibility for "unclaimed" children, the means of legitimizing adoption is seriously stigmatized.

And yet, we know that at least from a US viewpoint, there are more families looking for kids to adopt than there are available kids (quibble all you want here, but see this Huffington Post post). How we balance all of that requires some serious thought and careful weighing of policy. And I'm not convinced there's enough intelligent, bias free people focusing on this issue to get us where we need to be if adoption worldwide is going to be something that becomes common and accepted (to rebut myself, check out this great resource from the NY Times debate blog).

Obviously, Haiti is a nation in crisis and no one wants to see kids in harm's way -- especially kids without parents to comfort them. The level of altruism this crisis has fostered is remarkable. However, I still shake my head at how bizarre it was that the governor of my state, Ed Rendell, flew down to Haiti within days of the earthquake and airlifted more than 50 kids out of that country to the U.S. -- and came home a hero while they were still digging people out of the rubble.

And the stories of all these parents trying to get kids they were in line to adopt out now that records have been lost and destroyed are often heart wrenching (and warming) but also very bizarre too -- to me anyway. I mean, there are hundreds of doctors and nurses and other professionals down there right now trying to help people pick up the pieces of--or just save their lives. Swooping in to a country and yanking kids out is kind of weird in the greater scheme of things.

These Haitian kids were there before this crisis hit. Swooping in and rescuing orphans is not going to solve this country's family problems. Haiti needs to be rebuilt and changed forever over the next several decades with the plight of it's children in the front of all our minds. A working agrarian economy, sustainable energy and resource systems, a rising standard of living, and a model international education system could all go so much further in the long run than child rescue missions.

You have to ask yourself -- regardless of how much you care about the protection of the innocent -- is this one of those moments where we have the opportunity to get some perspective on a vexing problem that folks have had a hard time grappling with?

Haiti isn't just another third world country that can't get it's shit together. Haiti is our neighbor and we've kind of helped screw it up for a long time. I predict that the North American connection to this nation is going to become intimate and deep over the next decade.

It wouldn't surprise me if we begin to think seriously about turning this country into a territory of the U.S. somehow. It also wouldn't surprise me at all if Haitian adoption becomes a much more streamlined and common practice (especially for our most dignified citizens in the mold of Madonna, Brad and Angie, Rosie O'Donnell, and Tom and Katie).

But it also wouldn't surprise me that as soon as we get to the bottom of the story of the Haiti Adoption Ten, this issue will just slowly settle back to bottom of the pile and we will all get on with our lives thinking about things that are less depressing and more life affirming -- like Apple iPads, quirky cable TV shows, and the 2010 baseball season.


David Biddle said...

After finishing this piece, we learned that it's been reported that a clergyman was going around to Haitian families asking if they had any children to offer guaranteeing them a better life...presumably in America. We can only assume that the temporary cessation of adoptions in Haiti spurred the Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission to civil disobedience.

The question, of course, is whether these folks felt compelled by their religious beliefs or whether some other incentive was in play here (or both?).

Let's see how things pan out...

Margie said...

I'd like to give the Americans in this story the benefit of the doubt, but the verdict is still out for me. What I can't get out of my head is that fact that some strong proponents of intercountry adoption truly believe that an improvement in temporary circumstances justifies actions on the fringes of the law. These people may have honestly (and incredibly stupidly) believed they could just walk across an international border with undocumented children because their personal motives were positive. What a target they and others like them make for the really bad guys, who know how to play those motives like a violin.

Thanks for posting your thoughts.

Martha Nichols said...

David, I like the way you wrestle with this, and oh how I wish Haiti and its multiple problems could become a focus for a discussion of what ethical international adoptions mean. The Idado story obviously brings up memories of Operation Babylift in Vietnam and that very mixed ethical legacy. I'm also glad that you noted the many Haitian orphans before the earthquake and their lives of domestic servitude.

Margie, you'd so right about the bad guys taking the motives of well-intentioned naifs and turning them into something far more disturbing and profit-oriented.

a Tonggu Momma said...

My husband has actually been to their Idaho town and grew up relatively nearby. This story doesn't surprise him at all. And amen to Margie's words.

Andrew Field said...

good artical but the problem when person reaches 21 but adoption is forced on adoptee for life being adopted random things in daily life can often put you in a daze thinking of issues and what of my children and their up bringing and family life if i was never showed a family life how does this rub off on my children etc all to much swept under the carpet and dinile especialy by the authorities whom know better.