Where Will All The Haitian Orphans Go?

Aid groups say tens of thousands of Haitian children lost their parents in the earthquake last week, adding to the country's 350,000 orphans. In response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is aiming to expedite adoptions already underway by American families. The Joint Council on International Children's Services Chief Executive Thomas DiFilipo tells NPR how the Haitian adoption process will be affected by the disaster.

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The death toll from Haiti's earthquake continues to climb, with some estimates as high as 200,000. With so many families affected, aid groups say tens of thousands of children may have lost their parents, in a country already home to more than 350,000 orphans. Yesterday, 53 orphans arrived in Pittsburgh after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security loosened entry requirements for Haitian children already matched with American families.

To be clear, these were not children who were orphaned by the earthquake. But some children's advocates are concerned that expediting adoptions could misidentify children separated from their families in a quake.

If you have questions about international adoption, especially in the wake of a natural disaster, or if you've been involved in the process yourself, tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With us now to talk about orphans in Haiti is Tom DiFilipo, he's president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services. He's with me here on Studio 3A. Thanks for being on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. THOMAS DiFILIPO (President and CEO, Joint Council on International Children's Services): Thanks for having us.

ROBERTS: So this planeload of Haitian orphans landed yesterday in Pittsburgh, who are those kids?

Mr. DiFILIPO: They were children that were being adopted by American families. Just about all of them.

ROBERTS: And their immigration was made possible by this new policy from the Department of Homeland Security. What can you tell us about that?

Mr. DiFILIPO: Right. Thats called humanitarian parole. Normally, under normal circumstances you would need a visa to enter the United States. But when humanitarian parole is issued, youre allowed to come in and then process your immigration status and your adoption after you're actually in the United States. Which makes, in a situation like this, a lot of sense because the children's documentation, at least the final part of it, was destroyed in the earthquake and there's no government facilities to even process it. So the children won't have to remain there for an indefinite period of time when they have waiting families here.

ROBERTS: And what is the scope of that humanitarian parole? Who is eligible for it?

Mr. DiFILIPO: At the moment, it's any child that had been referred to a family prior to the earthquake. So if you were a family and you had received an official referral, part of that referral is documentation that the child was actually an orphan. So the Haitian government had said, yes, this child is an orphan. This child may be adopted internationally. Then the referral can take place.

ROBERTS: And that's on a case-by-case basis?

Mr. DiFILIPO: Yes it is. Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: So this idea of sort of a massive airlift of orphans from Haiti has taken some hold in popular consciousness, but no one is actually proposing that.

Mr. DiFILIPO: No. No. Certainly not Joint Council and no one that we've talked to in UNICEF or the Department of State or anyone else is suggesting a mass airlift. This is an evacuation of children who are already in the process and would have eventually been adopted by American families. It's just a way of expediting that process to get the children into a safe and permanent family.

ROBERTS: You can see where the support for something like that comes from - an emotional base, right? You see faces of children who have nowhere to go in this devastated country.

Mr. DiFILIPO: Right.

ROBERTS: Certainly there are Americans who feel like they want to do something, what advice do you have for them?

Mr. DiFILIPO: Well, I think it's a natural human response when you see a child trip and fall on a curb, you walk over and pick them up. In a situation like this, the devastation is just unimaginable. You see the images on TV. And again, I think, all of us say, let's go help these children. One of the problems is, first, we need to get emergency aid to the children first before we're considering just lifting them out of the country.

And the second part is, in a time of a national emergency, it's really not the best policy to airlift the children into another country. Here's a quick example of what can happen. You have a child in school. You have a mother or father at work, maybe the work is in a on the opposite side of the island. The earthquake hits, the child is alone for two or three weeks, no one comes to visit. You assume the child's an orphan, you put them on a plane, fly them to France, and they get adopted.

And then two months later, you discover the father was in the hospital or could not otherwise, he was injured or was in a camp. And then you find out what you really did was not give a child a home, and a family, but what you did was you separated the child from their parents, their birthparents. And we certainly don't want to be in a position of doing that. Airlifting children out for medical needs or emergency surgeries, that's one thing. But mass airlifts of tens of thousands of children just - it's not something that we would support, for sure.

ROBERTS: It's the image, I think, of the Pedro Pan flights from Cuba that I think is the analogy people are using when they talk about this. Just sort of refresh our historical memory on what that was and why this is different.

Mr. DiFILIPO: There's it's not just Pedro Pan. There was the boat and airlift out of Vietnam. We've learned a lot of lessons. Pedro Pan, from my understanding, was mostly a political issue. This is obviously a humanitarian crisis and even more compelling, I believe, similar to what had happened in Vietnam. But the lessons learned where these children grew up, they found out they had living relatives. Because it's not just do they have a living parent, it's maybe they have a grandmother or a grandfather, aunt, uncle that could care for them, and they deserve to have that family. It's their human right.

So we've learned those lessons over the past decade, so when things happen like the tsunami, just about every credible aid and relief organization, UNICEF, Save the Children, Joint Council and others, we all said the same thing. Let's wait until we can determine that these children are true orphans. And then if they are, then aggressively use international adoption or other local solutions.

Certainly, we support local solutions before international adoption, but they should be used aggressively once you've determined the child is, in fact, an orphan. One of the problems with this that some have is the reunification efforts, reunifying the child with the parent is (unintelligible) can sometime take years. And we don't support that either.

We've had instances where children go in the refugee camps. They live there 10 years. That's not healthy for a kid. Two or three years is not healthy for a kid. There should be an aggressive move, very aggressive to get these kids reunited, so we can determine their status.

ROBERTS: We are talking about orphans in Haiti with Tom DiFilipo. He's president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services. And if you have questions about international adoption in this context of a natural disaster, if you've been part of that process yourself, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or send us email: talk@npr.org.

Let's hear from Richard(ph) in Sioux City, Iowa. Richard, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICHARD (Caller): Oh, hi. Good afternoon to you and your guest. It's a very interesting conversation.

ROBERTS: Thank you. Good afternoon to you.

RICHARD: I work with the University of Missouri. We have a trauma team and we have travelled all around the world, 20 some odd visits to Bosnia, Banda Aceh after the tsunami, et cetera, et cetera. We found a lot of interesting issues when we talk about orphans and one of the ones that really came as a surprise to us was culturally when we - you know, we talk about dividing politics and culture, sometimes it's not possible.

We found in Pakistan after the earthquake, that orphans there, really in a patriarchal society, are often in the extended family themselves. So when man is lost, the head of the household, as it's seen in that culture, the woman has literally no value, the mother. And we developed to what was called the Village of Hope, which was an orphan community that we built there and we supplied for three years.

And we were talking - we were taking in not just children but, you know, we ran into the necessity to understand the culture and the politics combined and looking at these extended persons also as orphans, made it very difficult when we talked about relocation, reunification and those other issues.

ROBERTS: Richard, thank you so much for your call. I mean, these cultural considerations - certainly with Haiti, there's a certain set of things that needs to be taken into account, but pretty much with all international adoptions.

Mr. DiFILIPO: Certainly. With all international adoptions, you certainly, want to take into consideration the local customs, the local laws, that certainly is important, and then also in just the broader context about doing intercultural adoption, international adoption. So, there's a lot of efforts, there's been again, been a lot of lessons learned, many of the adoptive families, if not most, tried to maintain the child's culture.

One of the issues that always comes up with international adoption is losing the child's culture. And - we had an intern last year at Joint Council, a post-graduate student, and she grew up in an orphanage in Korea until she was 12. And she said the culture that she learned was that of an orphanage, that no one cared. So what culture did she have?

I don't believe that children have a right to the culture of an orphanage or the culture of a casket. They have a right to the culture of a family, wherever that family is.

ROBERTS: Well, there's also sort of the opposite question that - there's the question of what children lose if they lose the culture of their homeland, but there's also the question of what does a homeland lose if they lose children in large numbers. What's the effect of that?

Mr. DiFILIPO: Well, we don't - we've never seen any country participate in an international adoption to the extent where they were losing a significant portion of their population. I don't think that's really a valid argument. Some would say, well, they're losing their natural resources, right? You take Eastern Europe, you have the gypsy population they're not exactly considered a resource. They're in orphanages. They'll never be adopted by the local population. And without international adoption, those children have no option, whatsoever. So, again, the number is just aren't meeting up with what that statement says.

ROBERTS: Let hear from Elizabeth(ph) in Manchester, New Hampshire. Elizabeth, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. Thank you. I just have a quick question. I'm wondering about the potential for a foster situation for some of these children where they might be taken out and given care in homes in viable countries with people that would like to help and that were unable to adopt them because of the potential for finding their parents or other family members after things start to get back.

ROBERTS: So, some sort of temporary help while Haiti...

ELIZABETH: Exactly.

ROBERTS: ...is still a disaster zone.

Mr. DiFILIPO: Right.

ROBERTS: Tom DiFilipo?

Mr. DiFILIPO: That is being talked about amongst different aid organizations. But, again, on something like that, the amount of effort that needs to be put in to that, the amount of money that's spent could easily be better spent if we use that to secure a safe haven for these children in Haiti right now, and then allow the family reunification and other local solutions to be looked at.

Right now, the chaos, even with the adoptions of the children being adopted by American families is extreme. The children are - you know, there's gangs running around on the streets, so that when we try and move the children to the airport or the - or embassy, they need to pay bribes almost to make it through the streets.

You have an orphanage maybe with 110 children - this is one case from last night - 111 children. Three adults were supposed to move all of those kids, 16 of whom have special needs, 86 kilometers to the embassy and then somehow get to the airport. It's just almost an impossible situation and we really need a centralized location that's safe, secure, has their medical needs addressed and their food and water so these kids are safe.

And not just the kids coming into the States - I mean, we're talking all the children there. And I know that UNICEF and Save the Children are working on some solutions to that end, but there's large populations that lived in orphanages where there's no solution being offered right now.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from Elizabeth(ph) in Rochester, New York. Elizabeth, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. I am an adoptive parent of two children at the House of God's Children in Port-au-Prince. And I appreciate - I'm sorry, I forgot what your name was from the Joint Council - but I do appreciate that, you know, that you had tried to at least enact a plan. It's the first plan that I've actually heard and we do appreciate that. And I'm sorry that it's not being followed.

But what I would just like to know is if anyone going to create a plan to get my children out of Port-au-Prince, because I'm just frantic right now. And we got an update this morning that our orphanage was going to take all 133 children and walk two kilometers with all of them, 60 of them under the age of 3, to the United States Embassy, hoping that they would allow them to come in there and get processed. And we just don't know what is going on. And I'm just outraged that my kids are still in Port-au-Prince a week after this earthquake.

Mr. DiFILIPO: I hear your voice. And by the way, my name is Tom from Joint Council.

ELIZABETH: Okay. Sorry, Tom.

Mr. DiFILIPO: No, no. Don't apologize. My gosh, with what you're going through that's the last thing you needed to come out of your mouth. There is no universal or organized strategy here. It's almost like an every man for himself. And unfortunately, what we would like to see is extraction teams go into the orphanage, take all of the children, bring them into a centralized location.

And this isn't just Joint Council's plan. There's lots of organizations that have been collaborating and trying to put something like this together. And it's not about who owns the idea, it's about making it happen for these kids and for you and your family.

ELIZABETH: Yeah.

Mr. DiFILIPO: Unfortunately right now, there is no answer. Members of Congress have been unbelievably supportive on this whole concept.

ELIZABETH: Yeah. And my Senate members have been calling you too to see what they can do. Governor Paterson of New York has been completely unhelpful, and Hillary Clinton's office has been completely unhelpful as well.

Mr. DiFILIPO: I can't speak for those offices, but I can tell you that our work will continue and there's a lot of just individualized efforts going on out there. There's people flying in still. We've just had three other people come in land last night and this morning that are literally just getting in their cars, driving from one location to the next as we direct them. We're getting text messages, thank God for that.

ELIZABETH: Yes.

Mr. DiFILIPO: We have - just again this morning, we had a 4-year-old girl who's being adopted by her great aunt here in the States. She was able to text her aunt. She was alone on a street corner by herself. She's a teenager. The aunt forwarded the information to us. We were able to get it to one of our staffers and - not one of our staffers - I'm sorry, one of our colleagues there, and they were able to at least - right now they're going to try and find her. But this is just a chaotic situation that's not - that's becoming more and more dangerous for these kids.

ELIZABETH: It really is. And to tell you the truth, I would really rather see the safe haven be in the United States because I just don't feel like there's a possibility of a safe haven in Port-au-Prince right now. I would really rather see everyone come to Florida and just, you know, keep it - kept in some kind of a safe location there while they did the processing.

ROBERTS: Elizabeth, thanks for your call. And certainly, good luck in helping get your daughters out of Haiti in that vein of a potential safe haven. One of the reasons that this has come up is there's been some confusion about what Catholic Legal Services was going to do. And we have a sort of clarification from their communications director, Mary Ross August(ph). She says it's an offer that if there is a need to find a place for kids in this country, that they have it, that Catholic charities can provide a living facility for some kids. They're not sending in planes themselves.

Mr. DiFILIPO: Right.

ROBERTS: If there are kids that need a place in this country, they have put out the offer there that they've got a place to live.

Mr. DiFILIPO: And when you hear stories such as Elizabeth's and the ones that we're getting in to our offices, it almost makes a plan like that appealing. Sometimes you have to put policy aside when there's just no other response. When you're not getting any response or the response that you're getting is too late or too little and children's lives are actually at risk, then you do, you start to think, well, let's move outside of what good policy we'd be in. And maybe the good policy is to keep these kids alive somehow.

And so, we certainly appreciate the archdiocese of Miami's offer. It's not our decision, obviously, but they certainly represent good intentions and very professional approach to it.

ROBERTS: Tom DiFilipo, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Mr. DiFILIPO: You're welcome. Thanks for having us.

ROBERTS: Tom DiFilipo is the president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services.

Tomorrow, we will take a look at the future of the health care bill after the Democrats have lost their supermajority in the Senate. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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