Haitian Orphans' Fate In Limbo Amid Post-Disaster Confusion

Three weeks have passed since Haiti was struck by a massive earthquake that left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. But even before the earthquake, more than 300,000 children were orphaned in the country and the number has risen higher following the disaster. But amid recent allegations that members of an Idaho church group were trafficking Haitian children by attempting to remove them from Haiti, the country's government has temporarily halted all departures of orphans. Host Michel Martin talks with two experts on international adoptions — Magalie Boyer, director of Communications and Advocacy for World Vision, an aide group which recently announced its support for the temporary halt, and Kim Batts, international service coordinator for Bethany Christian Services. Bethany Christian recently brought 58 Haitian children to the United States. The women discuss the debate over the children's best interest.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a mother on the ritual of doing her daughter's hair. That's in just a moment.

But first, they say it takes village to raise a child. That's the motto of our weekly Mom's conversation. But what if the village is destroyed? Who should step in? We're talking specifically about the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, where more than 100,000 people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless. Many of the displaced are children, and this is no coincidence. Almost half of Haiti's population is under the age of 21. And even before the earthquake, more than 300,000 children lived in orphanages. The situation is so unsettled currently, that it isn't even clear how many children have newly orphaned by the earthquake.

In the United States, the devastation has prompted a great number of families to inquire about adopting Haitian children. About two weeks ago, the Haitian government temporarily halted all departures of orphans, saying it wanted to ensure that the children really are orphaned and that they're destined for safe situations. But now others are asking: Is this really the best thing for the children? Will slowing the pace of adoptions in the face of so much need help or hurt children?

Yesterday, we spoke about a group of American church members who were detained after trying to transport 33 Haitian children over the border to the Dominican Republic. We spoke with Drew Ham. He's the associate pastor of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho. Several of those arrested belong to his church, and Pastor Ham said members of his church were well intentioned. They were not trying to evade the law, and simply wanted to get their children to safer circumstances.

Now, this is a very complex issue, as you might imagine. So last week, we sought out two people who have direct experience in this area of international adoption. Kim Batts is the international service coordinator for Bethany Christian Services. That's one of the nation's largest adoption agencies. They recently brought 58 Haitian children to the United States. And Magalie Boyer is the director of Communications and Advocacy for World Vision. World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization with many years experience in Haiti. That organization recently announced its support for the temporary halt on international adoption from Haiti. And Magalie let us know that her own family was doing well in the aftermath of the quake.

Ms. MAGALIE BOYER (Director, Communications and Advocacy, World Vision): We're going to report that, gratefully, my family is safe and our house is still standing. So, we are fine.

MARTIN: And are you able to get what you need - food, water?

Ms. BOYER: Yes. I think that, unfortunately, one of the things that the quake did not change is if you have money, if you have some disposable income, you can obtain materials, be that for food or water or other items. So I've been very blessed.

MARTIN: Well, we are very grateful that you are well and safe and that your family is safe. So, thank you for that. So World Vision was one of the organizations that supported the temporary halt on adoptions. Why?

Ms. BOYER: I think World Vision is interested in doing what is best for children. And what is best for children is to recognize that they have the right to the care and the affection of their parents. Now, truly we are not blind. We know that conditions in Haiti right now, are very, very difficult. Still, imagine being the mother of the child or the grandmother or grandfather of a child whom you had in your care and someone coming along, with no prior knowledge, just because you had the misfortune of being separated from your child saying, okay. This child has no one to care of them. We will take them somewhere else, for someone else to take care of.

So we are trying to say let's just make sure that those children who were being adopted, that the adoptions were already underway. And someone had to look into where they were going. Someone had checked out the adopted parents. And someone had had some time to prepare those children. And if it is determined that adoption indeed is the best option, then, my goodness, yes, of course, of course.

MARTIN: Kim, your agency brought 58 children to the U.S. Those children had already been determined to be available for adoption before the earthquake. Do I have that right?

Ms. KIM BATTS (International Service Coordinator, Bethany Christian Services): Right. They had actually been connected to an adoptive parent, and the United States had indicated that the children could leave on humanitarian parole. And actually six of the children were about to receive visas. So, you know, we're very much in support of that, if they worked through the adoption process.

MARTIN: And, can you tell me, have more people made queries since the earthquake, knowing the situation there?

Ms. BATTS: Yes, definitely. Just for an example, one of the ways that families connect with us first is to complete a preliminary application. And just to compare, in one year, we received about a thousand of these. That was 2009. And in January of 2010, we've already received over 1,600. So, we have many, many families that are interested in possibly adopting children.

MARTIN: What's your take on the temporarily halting adoptions from Haiti in the wake of these circumstances? What's your perspective on this?

Ms. BATTS: Yes, for children that are not already - or were not already in the adoption process before the earthquake or in support of halt right now, the Haiti government is not in a place to be able to fully investigate whether or not a child really should be adopted or is available for adoption. They don't have the resources to go through that appropriate investigation. So, we are in support of that.

MARTIN: The prime minister says that he will personally approve, that there will be no children leaving without his sort of personal...

Ms. BATTS: Right.

MARTIN: ...approval. And, Maggie, I have to ask, is he in a position to give attention to this at a time like this?

Ms. BOYER: The truth is that Haitian people are very resilient. And there are governmental employees from the different agencies tasked with an adoption process who do show up for work. They do come. They do have phone numbers. The cell numbers are beginning to work now. They have their files. They have their dossiers. They know who the contact information is. They are able to verify information.

So, I think the best to do is someone who is already in the process of adopting a child and was already further along, to have an established record, please contact your embassy because the ambassadors to Haiti are able to present formal requests to the prime minister, who then has people at his disposal to please check this out for me, bring the documents, let me verify and let me assure. He has done that already for about a 150 children, if I'm not mistaking.

MARTIN: Kim, please, your perspective on this?

Ms. BATTS: Yeah, I think there needs to be some time in order to track parents or track family before we just take them out of the country. You know, if we had a catastrophe here, would we like our children airlifted out of the United States so that we would possibly never be able to find them again?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Magalie Boyer of World Vision and Kim Batts of Bethany Christian Services. We're talking about the temporary halt on adoptions from Haiti. It was imposed by the Haitian government two weeks ago.

But I have to say, one of the reasons I'm interested in this is in that in this country and in other countries, there has been a history of abuse of separating children from parents based on criteria that we now consider unacceptable - for example, children from, you know, native backgrounds have sometimes been, you know, removed from their parents and placed in institutions - orphanage, etc. And there have been some circumstances in which we - we would now consider that unacceptable.

But there are also times - for example, I remember I interviewed a young woman who whose mother was taken away but the military junta during the Dirty War in Argentina. Her mother literally threw her under a bush with her name on a tag around her neck hoping that someone, a decent person would save her child rather than see her child fall into hands of the people who took her away and later killed her.

It just seems like there is no one answer that I as I understand it, about what is best to do under extreme circumstances. Though that's why I'm pressing the question about how it is determined what is best. Maggie, what do you think?

Ms. BOYER: You know, Haiti has a long history of Diaspora, if I can put it that way. Many of us Haitians who are born and raised in this country to Haitian parents have had the opportunity to travel abroad and to come live and work and study in the United States and Canada and other countries.

So it is not unheard of for Haitian families to be separated, for mom to come to the States or dad to go to Canada while children stay here. Many, many Haitians families have gone through this. Talk to children whose mom and dad left them when they were little to go abroad. You don't hear that story often. These are children who are eventually reunited with parents. But maybe often -five, six, seven years later - and they said, you know, my dad left when I was nine. I didn't see him again until I was 17.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. BOYER: And I would have given anything for him to stay with me because I really needed him when I was 10 and 11 and 12 and 13, and he wasn't there. Also, the other maybe - it may be a particular feature to Haitian society is that we really do have extensive family networks here. It's a rare Haitian family that is just solely a nuclear family. Most families live in homes with not just mom and dad and kids, with mom, dad, children, but also grandmas and grandpas and cousins and nephews and nieces and, you know, (unintelligible) and not to mention the neighbors and the people from the church and the schoolteachers. So even with those children when at first you cannot necessarily find the mother or the father, it is possible often to find someone that the child knows to give the child some chance of being reunited with the family eventually.

MARTIN: Kim, are there other children who have been identified as available for adoption

Ms. BATTS: Yeah.

MARTIN: with your agency? Are they able - are you able to bring them to the families who are expecting them?

Ms. BATTS: Not at this point. All of the children that the U.S. has identified that can come to the U.S. are now here. There is another category of children who have been legally released by birth parents or abandoned who were not in the beginning of the adoption process or during the adoption process before the earthquake hit. And I know right now the United States is determining if those children might come into refugee foster care at some point. But we're very happy that the government decided to allow these children in on humanitarian parole.

And I think that if there is a need and it does appear that there is a need definitely, that the United States government does consider, you know, possibly refugee foster care.

MARTIN: Kim Batts is the international service coordinator for Bethany Christian Services, that's one this country's largest adoption agencies. She joined us from her office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Magalie Boyer is the director of Communications and Advocacy for the humanitarian organization World Vision. She joined us on the phone from the capital Port-au-Prince. I thank you both so much for speaking with us, ladies.

Ms. BATTS: Thanks for having me.

Ms. BOYER: Thank you.

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