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Intercountry adoption after the Haiti earthquake: rescue or robbery?


On 19 January 2010, a week after the 7.0 magnitude quake hit Haiti, 54 Haitian-born children arrived in Pittsburgh on a flight with Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. It was later revealed that 12 of the children were not in the process of adoption and that most of these were not orphans (Thompson G, 2010; see also Armistead, 2010 for a personal account). Ten days later, ten members of an Idaho-based Baptist charity were arrested for trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without proper paperwork (Hilborn, 2010). It was subsequently found that all 33 children had parents, with whom they were eventually reunited at an orphanage run by the Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages Charity (Bajak, 2010; Radnege, 2010). Other groups of children were taken by air to Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands in the weeks following the earthquake, raising concerns reminiscent of previous incidents linked to adoption as rescue in times of crisis.

Adoption as rescue

The idea of rescuing children affected by war or natural disaster has a long history in international adoption and examples can be seen in the aftermath of the Korean War in 1956 and the 'babylifts' from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 (Hubinette, 2006). Taylor (2010) notes that a similar solution was adopted in Germany after the end of World War 2, when many children were 'spontaneously' adopted during the ensuing chaos of the summer and autumn of 1945--'a situation in which the success of the children's future was shaped more by luck than design'.

More recently, adoption of this kind has been increasingly challenged by the home governments as unsuitable for the needs of child victims of disasters. In 1994, for example, an Italian agency 'rescued' 122 children from Rwanda but six years later the Rwandan government demanded the return of 40 of them, even though they had been adopted by Italian families (BBCNews, 2000, 2001). Similarly, in 2005 the Indian, Indonesian and Sri Lankan governments, backed by UNICEF and the US State Department, took steps to ensure that intercountry adoption was not entertained as a solution to the tsunami of December 2004 (McGinnis, 2005; Selman, 2010). Adoption agencies around the world had been flooded with phone calls from people with good intentions wishing to adopt children 'orphaned' by the disaster, but experts and aid agencies warned these would-be parents that they were likely to be disappointed. The government of Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation, placed a ban on any child under the age of 16 leaving the Aceh district without their parents and also banned adoptions therein. Many receiving states also stressed that their citizens should not adopt. The result was that few, if any, 'orphans' from the affected areas were adopted, a fact confirmed by the statistics on intercountry adoptions from these countries between 2003 and 2006, that is prior to and following the catastrophe (Table 1).

All four of these countries had a tradition of intercountry adoption going back many years but by 2004, before the tsunami, numbers in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand were falling and Indonesia, a country that had sent 3,071 children to the Netherlands between 1973 and 1984 (Hoksbergen, 1986, p 53), had virtually ended all such adoptions. The issue of intercountry adoption was raised later that year following the earthquake in Pakistan but was firmly rejected by its government. The Minister for Social Welfare, Zubaida Jalal, told the National Assembly: 'We have decided to look after the thousands of orphans. We have imposed a complete ban on adoption of these children' (Beck, 2005). In quite different circumstances, two years later in 2007, a French charity, Zoe's Ark (BBC News, 2007), was accused of child trafficking in the case of the 103 children it attempted to fly out of Chad and its officials in that country were sentenced to eight years' hard labour, although these sentences were subsequently commuted by the Chadian president (Duval Smith and Rolley, 2007; Chrisafis, 2008; Selman, 2010).

So, given an international political climate that is increasingly unsympathetic to the adoption of children affected by disasters, what happened in Haiti?

Adoption from Haiti before the earthquake

In the years immediately before the January 2010 earthquake, the number of children sent from Haiti for intercountry adoption had fluctuated between 700 and 1,400 a year, the majority going to just three countries: Canada, the USA and, most significant, France.

During this period, Haiti had one of the highest rates of intercountry adoption, 5.0 per 1,000 live births in 2008, compared with, for example, 0.33 and 2.7 for China and Russia in the same year. With the suspension of adoptions from Guatemala in 2009, Haiti became a prime target for agencies in the USA seeking new sources of children for those waiting to adopt.

The international response to the plight of children after the earthquake

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, many international organisations spoke out against the movement of children from Haiti and the Haitian government itself issued a warning that child traffickers might take advantage of the ensuing chaos to prey on vulnerable children. On 18 January, International Social Services (ISS, 2010) stated that intercountry adoption should not take place in a situation of war or natural disaster when it was impossible to verify the personal and family situations of children, and on 21 January, Carolyn Miles of Save the Children was quoted as saying that:

The vast majority of the children currently on their own still have family members alive who will be desperate to be reunited with them and will be able to care for them with the right support. (Schapiro, 2010)

Similar views were expressed by Angelina Jolie who stressed that:

New adoptions should definitely not be encouraged as an immediate response to the emergency. Haiti had many trafficking problems before the earthquake and now must keep a very close watch on the children. (Thompson J, 2010)

However, as early as 15 January, a few days after the earthquake, concern was being expressed over children already approved for adoption. Dixie Bickel, Director of God's Littlest Angels orphanage just outside Port-au-Prince, argued that emergency visas and passports could help push through adoptions that were stalled after the earthquake, and would open up beds for children who had lost their parents in the disaster (Gray, 2010). She stressed that her request was only for those children who had been adopted but were still living in Haiti due to the fact that their cases were going through a lengthy government approval process that could take anywhere from six months to two years, a situation exacerbated by the destruction of government organisation and agencies that could regulate and monitor events.

A week later, the Hague Conference (2010a) called on all contracting states to apply in Haiti the same standards and safeguards that would be required had the country ratified the international Convention covering intercountry adoptions, but accepted that where an adoption had been approved by the courts but was delayed by lengthy administrative procedures, it was justifiable to expedite the process as long as the child's identity was verified. But this should not be allowed if no court decision had been made. The Hague's information note concluded that:

A humanitarian disaster such as the earthquake should not be the reason for by-passing essential safeguards for safe adoption ... in a situation where child care and protection services have broken down, such as in Haiti, the risks are even greater that the adoption maybe 'unsafe'. (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 2010a)

This is why in these tragic situations the emphasis should first be on child protection, rather than adoption.

The four countries most involved in adoption from Haiti prior to the earthquake responded in various ways, but most seemed clearly to have encouraged expediting the adoptions already in hand and to have accepted some new applications. In contrast, Spain, which had received over 150 children from Haiti in the previous seven years (see Table 2), took no children as its adoption legislation does not permit adoption from countries in crisis (ISS, 2010, p 62). The details of each country's policy are now discussed.

The United States

At the end of 2004, the US Department of State declared that it would not be possible for US citizens to adopt children who had been orphaned by the tsunami, but the response to the earthquake in Haiti five years later was somewhat different, largely because of the number of adoptions 'in process'. Within days of the disaster, the State Department announced that orphaned children from Haiti would be allowed to enter the US temporarily on a case-by-case basis to ensure they received proper care, but this programme was ended three months later on 13 April at the request of the Haitian Government (US Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2010).

Under the plan, entry into the USA would be granted to children who had been legally confirmed as orphans eligible for intercountry adoption by the government of Haiti and were being adopted by US citizens; or to children who had been previously identified by an adoption service provider or facilitator as eligible for intercountry adoption and had been matched to a US citizen as a prospective adoptive parent (Lindsey, 2010; Reitz, 2010).

There were concerns that documentation in Haiti might lie buried beneath rubble, which led the US Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS) to compile a database containing information on the situation with regard to the adoption process of each family, while also warning that 'bringing children into the US either by airlift or new adoption during a time of national emergency can open the door for fraud, abuse and trafficking' (JCICS, 2010). In the event, the USA brought out more children than any other country, trebling the number granted visas in 2009 (see Table 3).


For many years France had been the main destination for children adopted internationally from Haiti, with more than 5,000 placed since 2001. At the beginning of 2010, more than 900 French families were in the process of applying to adopt from Haiti and 276 already had been matched with a child. On 14 January, France stated that it would not 'expedite' adoptions but on 17 January many of the prospective adoptive parents held a demonstration in front of the Quai d'Orsay demanding that procedures be hastened. In response, the French Central Authority, SAI (Service de l'Adoption Internationale), announced that any child with serious medical needs or in the process of adoption would be evacuated and in the next six weeks, a series of Air France flights brought out 489 children (Dambach and Baglietto, 2010, p 44). A similar number were brought to France in the latter part of 2010 following a special agreement with the Haitian Government to expedite judgments. Most (701 out of 992) were independent adoptions, which are now to be banned by the Haitian Government (ISS, 2011).

The Netherlands

In contrast, the Netherlands announced on 15 January that it would facilitate the transfer of children on whom an adoption judgment had been made and soon after that would extend this policy to those where matching had occurred. On 17 January, it was announced that nine children who had not been matched would be brought in (Dambach and Baglietto, 2010, p 10). Within weeks, a Dutch airlift brought 106 children from quake-ravaged Haiti to new lives in the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Many of those sent to the Netherlands were in the process of being adopted before the quake, but the move had not been approved by a Haitian judge (Adams, 2010). The number of children taken to the Netherlands in the two months after the quake was more than that for the whole of 2009 and very few children had been adopted in Luxembourg in the preceding years.


Between 2001 and 2009, Canadians adopted nearly 1,000 children from Haiti, a policy that had not been without problems. Following the coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide on 29 February 2004, the Department of Foreign Affairs warned prospective parents against travelling to Haiti, a warning repeated at various times in the next three years. However, in the early months of 2010, some adoptions in progress were being fast-tracked and emergency airlifts were arranged for children already matched. The Government of Haiti gave permission for 217 children who were already in the adoption process at the time of the earthquake to go to Canada, more than the total number adopted in 2009. By the end of February, 203 children had arrived in their new country (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2010a, b; Hilborn, 2010).

Other countries

The response of other countries in the aftermath of the earthquake is examined in detail in the ISS report (Dambach and Baglietto, 2010). It shows that 60 children were flown to Germany, twice the number sent in 2009, while Belgium and Luxembourg each took 14. Children were also taken to Switzerland.

What has actually happened since January 2010?

In the days following the earthquake, a considerable number of children left Haiti as 'adoptees'. Rotabi and Bergquist (2010) estimate the number as well over 1,000 and ISS proposed a figure of over 2,000 in the first two months of 2010 (Dambach and Baglietto, 2010). What could not be established, however, was how many of these children were taken without full legal investigation and whether any can be said to have been 'trafficked', despite an existing history of trafficking to or via the Dominican Republic for child labour and/or sex or selling to US adopters (Smolin, 2004, 2010). What is clear in retrospect is that the fast-tracking of adoptions made it impossible to ensure that all procedures were followed appropriately and that the normal process of placement was disrupted. This meant that some children were able to travel to the receiving countries with their new parents who were often ill prepared for the sudden placement and that many of the children, already traumatised by the earthquake, were subjected to additional stress resulting from such a hasty reaction. Even in France, there would have been an immediate language barrier. The Haitian 'French'-style patois would not have been understood.

In April 2010, the Haitian Government announced that it would allow the completion of adoptions started prior to the earthquake and consider new applications for any child who was genuinely an orphan. In January 2011, the US State Department reported that Haiti's adoption authority, the Institut du Bienetre Social et de Recherches (IBESR), had informed the US Government that they were accepting new adoption applications for children who were documented as orphans or who had been relinquished by their birth parent(s).

The situation to date

Two years on from the earthquake, it is possible to see what actually happened and how this affected the number of adoptions from Haiti worldwide and, in particular, those countries that had taken substantial numbers in the past. Table 3 shows the ISS estimates of adoptions in the first two months of 2010, plus figures for the full year, as reported by the central authorities of the receiving states involved.

It is clear from this evidence that the total number of adoptions did increase in 2010 and was twice that recorded in 2009. The adoption ratio rose to nearly ten per 1,000 live births, the highest for any state of origin in 2010 (Selman, in press). With the exception of France most of these adoptions (over 80%) took place in the first two months of the year. When looking at the patterns for individual countries, it can be seen that the number of adoptions from Haiti to the United States rose from 330 in 2009 to over 1,200 in 2010--the majority entering on emergency ('humanitarian') visas. There were also increased numbers to France--from 651 to 992--and the Netherlands--from 60 to 108. In Canada there was a more modest rise from 141 to 172, but earlier reports suggested a higher number of at least 203. There were no adoptions from Haiti to Italy, Spain, the UK or the Nordic countries but the number of children received increased sharply in Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, and ISS expects the number going to Germany to have doubled.

Despite the doubling of adoptions from Haiti in 2010, there is no indication that the new level will be maintained. US fiscal year statistics for 2011 record only 33 visas issued for Haiti and provisional figures for France in 2011 show only 30 adoptions by the end of November. It seems likely, therefore, that the global total will be much lower than any recorded in the previous eight years (see Table 2). On 2 March 2011, Haiti signed the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, and France and other countries have seen this as a step towards a resumption of adoption with safeguards to ensure it is in the best interests of the child. In June there was a meeting in Port-au-Prince of the 'Montreal Group' of nine receiving countries, with the Permanent Bureau and UNICEF as observers, to encourage early ratification and a resumption of adoptions (L'Association Coeur Adoption, 2011).

Discussion and conclusion

There have been many concerns over the process of 'expediting' adoptions from Haiti after the earthquake, even when the adoptions were in process. The ISS report (Dambach and Baglietto, 2010) spells out these concerns in detail with case studies of the countries involved. There was also considerable discussion at the Hague Special Commission of June 2010, which concluded that:

... in a disaster situation, efforts to reunite a displaced child with his or her parents or family members must take priority. Premature and unregulated attempts to organise the adoption of such a child abroad should be avoided and resisted.

and that:

... no new adoption applications should be considered in the period after the disaster or before the authorities in that State are in a position to apply the necessary safeguards. (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 2010b, p 5, paras 38 & 39)

The Special Commission also recognised the need for a common approach on the part of central authorities in dealing with such situations and for them to discuss and review actions taken in response to, and lessons learned from, disaster situations (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 2010b, p5).

As new statistics become available, debate continues about what actually happened with regard to intercountry adoptions from Haiti and any steps needed to change future responses to disasters. One of the best assemblages of different viewpoints can be found on the New York Times Room for Debate website (http:roomfordebate.blogs. The responses vary from enthusiasm for an immediate response by offering adoption (Bartholet, 2010) to opposition to adoption of any kind from Smolin (2010) and Graff (2010) who wrote that:

Not for a year or so--after a working government has investigated whether a child has truly lost all his or her functioning family--should children be offered for adoption.

Support for intercountry adoption as part of the solution for Haiti has also come from Craig Juntunnen (2009), adopted father of three children from Haiti and founder of Both Ends Burning, which campaigns for a major increase in intercountry adoptions and 'an end to red tape' (Juntunnen, 2010).

A year after the Haiti earthquake an even more powerful one hit Japan with an estimated 20,000 deaths and thousands of children orphaned. Many people offered to adopt these children but Tazuru Ogaway, Director of the Japanese adoption agency Across Japan, commented on email requests from the US that 'such ... emails makes Japanese people very uncomfortable, because for us, it sounds like someone who is looking for "what I want" from our terrible disaster' (Macedo, 2011). In this case, offers to adopt were not limited to the USA and reports indicate that many Chinese families stepped forward to take in children.

Japan has sent 30-40 children a year to the USA over the past decade, but the US State Department indicated that there was no intention to expedite any 'pipeline' children as this would not have been acceptable under adoption procedures in that country. Reports in the US media also noted that many people--including leading adoption agencies--felt uneasy about the response to Haiti and would not have wanted this repeated in the case of Japan. The reaction in Japan to offers of adoption reflects the position typical of a rich country that feels that it does not need or want such help in a crisis. How would we feel about offers to adopt our children if anything similar happened here? Or in the case of Americans, if Mexico had offered to adopt their children after Hurricane Katrina?

What has happened in relation to children orphaned by the Japanese earthquake is unclear. Japan has around 400 children's homes with over 25,000 unparented children living in them and there is no tradition of domestic adoption. The assumption is that most of the 4,000 new orphans will be placed with relatives.

In making international comparisons, it is worth noting that the issue of adoption was not raised after the floods in Pakistan later in 2010, not only because of memories of the firm rejection of this following the 2005 earthquake but also because of concerns over the reaction to Haiti.

At the time of writing, the future of intercountry adoption from Haiti remains uncertain, but it is to be hoped that any resumption on the scale experienced in the years before the earthquake will be delayed until Haiti has ratified the Hague Convention and that steps are taken to ensure that adoptions are in the best interests of the child and in accord with the Convention. There are also clear lessons to be learned by receiving states to ensure an agreed responsible response to any future disaster situations.


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Table 1
International adoptions before and after the
Asian tsunami of December 2004

State of       Pre-tsunami      Post-tsunami
             2003     2004     2005     2006

India       1,172    1,083      873      847
Indonesia       5        8        4        5
Sri Lanka      46       55       59       57
Thailand      490      501      465      419

Table 2
Adoptions from Haiti 2003-2009 (with peak year in bold)

                 2003    2004   2005   2006

France           542     507    475     571
USA              250    356#    231     309
Canada           149    159#    115     123
Netherlands       69      42     51      41
Spain             17     36#     24      15
Italy              6       9     13       2
All countries   1,055   1,159   958    1,096

                2007    2008    2009   2003-9

France           403    731#    651    3,880
USA              190     302    330    1,968
Canada            89     148    141     924
Netherlands       28     91#     60     382
Spain             22      27     13     154
Italy              2       0      0      32
All countries    783    1,368#  1,238  7,525

Note: Peak year are indicated with #.

Table 3
Adoptions from Haiti 2008-2010, including
estimates by ISS
(2010) by rank in 2008

                   2008     2009     Jan-Feb      2010

France             731      651        489         992
USA                302      330       1,200     1,223 (a)
Canada             148      141        203       172 (b)
Netherlands         91       60        107         108
Germany           61 (b)   30 (b)      62        n/a (d)
Spain               27       13         7           0
Switzerland         4        9          9          16
Belgium             3        1         14          14
Luxembourg          1        3         14        n/a (d)
Italy               0        0          2           0
ISS estimatese)   1,368    1,238      2,107       2,525

(a) US fiscal year data--includes 1,090 'humanitarian'
visas (Reitz, 2010).

(b) This is the official figure provided by the CIC in
the published statistics for 2010, but earlier the CIC
(2010b) stated that 203 children had arrived in Canada
and this is the number used by ISS. At one point the CIC
issued a provisional figure of 236.

(c) Figures for Germany in 2008 and 2009 are taken from
the ISS Report (Dambach and Baglietto, 2010, p 13)

(d) No information on German or Luxembourg adoptions
from Haiti were available from their central authorities.
ISS estimates have been used in the bracketed total.

(e) ISS estimates for Jan-Feb 2010 are taken from Dambach
and Baglietto (2010, p 22). If we include their higher
figure for Canada the total would be 2,632.

Peter Selman is Visiting Fellow, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, UK
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Author:Selman, Peter
Publication:Adoption & Fostering
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:5HAIT
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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