Law stymies Haitian adoptions

Post-earthquake rules change leaving orphans in limbo

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | Time was up, not 10 minutes into the visit. The social worker went to pull the 3-year-old orphan out of the arms of the woman he calls “Momma.”

The boy turned his face and dug his hands into her clothes. He kicked his legs. He screamed as they carried him away.

Tamara Palinka covered her mouth to hold back the sobs. The 37-year-old Canadian volunteer aid worker did not know when — or if — she would get another glimpse of the child she was desperately trying to adopt.

International adoption has always been a sensitive subject in Haiti, a reminder that the country is too poor to care for its own. After January’s earthquake, the Haitian government effectively slammed the door shut on most adoptions altogether.

With no foster care system and virtually no domestic adoption in Haiti, untold numbers of children orphaned by the quake — like the 3-year-old known as Sonson — now face a lifetime inside an institution.

The crackdown on adoption came in response to two incidents. First, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania Democrat, flew 53 children from a destroyed orphanage run by two Pittsburgh sisters back to the U.S. after a tense standoff with officials at the Haiti airport. Then, a group of U.S. missionaries tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country without papers, claiming they were orphans, when in fact all had at least one living parent.

Infuriated, the Haitian government announced that all children leaving the country would need the signature of Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Since then, the government has relented somewhat, but it still allows only the adoption of children orphaned before the quake or those relinquished by their parents in the presence of a judge.

“The sad part is that because of a few people’s mistakes, children that could find a good home and are waiting for a home will now have to suffer for years — and may never get a home at all,” said Miriam Frederick, founder of the New Life Children’s Home orphanage.

International adoptions by U.S. households have fallen from a high of around 23,000 in 2004 to roughly half that last year, according to U.S. State Department figures. Haiti is the latest of several former “donor” countries to put a freeze on such adoptions.

Vietnam and Guatemala have halted adoptions altogether. South Korea — one of the first countries from which orphans were sent — has revised its rules to make adoptions increasingly difficult.

“There is a sense in many, many countries that to be a ‘sending’ country is an embarrassment,” said adoption lawyer Diane Kunz, executive director of the Center for Adoption Policy and a specialist on adoptions from Haiti. “Their perspective is ‘Our patrimony is our children.’ It’s as if you are giving this away.”

Haitian officials say they are trying to protect children from possible exploitation.

“International adoption should always be a last resort,” said former Deputy Gerandale Telusma, who headed a committee charged with drafting the country’s new adoption law. “We need to first make sure there is no other family willing to take the child — to make sure they don’t enter into some kind of nightmare.”

It is a position backed by the U.N. Children’s Fund, which helped create a database for unaccompanied children after the Haiti quake. The aim is to reunite children with their extended families, even if family members say they cannot care for the child.

Michel Forst, the United Nations’ independent specialist on human rights in Haiti, said the adoption freeze is necessary.

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