The debate over international adoption, already a bitter one, has intensified in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake and the arrest of 10 Americans for trying to take children out of the devastated country without permission.
Some groups are urging a long moratorium on new adoptions from Haiti, saying there is too much chaos and too high a risk of mistakes or child trafficking. Other groups fear any long-term clampdown will consign countless children to lives in institutions or on the street, rather than in the loving homes of adoptive parents.
Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption, said the arrests of the 10 U.S. Baptists would probably undercut his organization's push to expand adoptions from Haiti as soon as feasible.
"It was a critical mistake — the Haitian government has been very clear they did not want any children leaving without its express permission," Johnson said Monday. "Maybe the Americans thought they were helping 33 kids, but now there's going to be a much slower process and maybe even a ban on future adoptions — and that would be a tragedy."
The Americans, arrested Friday near Haiti's border with the Dominican Republican, were being held in a police headquarters in Port au Prince while Haitian and U.S officials discussed their fate.
Even before the arrests, the Haitian government called a halt to new international adoptions. Numerous organizations have endorsed the moratorium, some of them citing U.N. guidelines recommending that at least two years be spent tracing lost families before adoptions should be considered.
"No matter how horrific the situation looks ... the full process of reuniting children with parents and relatives must be completed," said Deb Barry, a Save the Children child protection expert.
The next steps, says UNICEF, should be compiling a registry of children separated from their families, an extensive campaign to trace relatives, and development of safe, well-supplied places where these children can stay during the search process.
The consequences of rushing to help children leave Haiti can be severe, according to the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
In one case, LIRS said, a 12-year-old boy who was allowed onto a U.S. military plane without documentation or relatives in the U.S. and is now in limbo while officials try to find out if he left family behind in Haiti. In another case, a 3-year-old boy arrived on a private plane with other orphans even though the family who had been planning to adopt him had changed their mind and abandoned the process.
"It's an example of why it's important to be patient and thorough," said Olivia Faires, director of children's services for LIRS. "It does add trauma, even in the midst of the chaos, to remove them from their customary surroundings."
The differing views on adoptions from Haiti mirror a long-running global debate — fueled recently by adoptions of African children by Madonna and other celebrities. Some advocates say international adoptions should be expanded so that more abandoned, destitute Third World children can be lovingly raised in comfort, while others say this is a patronizing attitude that ignores the benefits of being raised in one's own culture.
Down the road, whenever Haiti manages to stabilize itself and re-establish documentation for vulnerable children, there is likely to be vigorous debate on whether international adoptions should be resumed on an expanded scale.
There were 330 adoptions of Haitian children by Americans last year, about 900 more were in the works at the time of the quake, and Johnson said the Haitian government had identified an additional 7,300 orphans as eligible for international adoption.
Ammunition for anti-adoption groups
"We'd hoped to focus on those 7,300 — but now it gets harder and harder to do that," he said. "The arrests give those anti-adoption groups more ammunition to call for a permanent moratorium, and the kids suffer."
Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who supports expanded international adoption, expressed concern about a possible overreaction to the arrests.
"If not all their paperwork was together, that doesn't seem to me the worst crime in the world," she said. "The Haitian authorities should be trying to help a lot of kids get out — both the kids in the process of adoption and others who appear not to have parents or relatives able to take care of them."
"It is astoundingly hypocritical," she said, "that people, in the name of helping children, would close down adoption."
Other groups, however, say international adoptions should not be promoted until other options are exhausted.
SOS Children's Villages, which is caring for the 33 Haitian children targeted by the arrested Americans, said international adoptions "should be avoided until every effort has been undertaken to reunite each child with her/his family or to provide suitable care within the country."
The organization's CEO, Heather Paul, said American families might prove useful at some point in providing adoptive homes for children suffering medical or psychological problems from the quake. Meanwhile, she urged restraint.
"Sometimes Americans believe that children are better off in an American middle-class environment almost as a priority over being with their own family who are impoverished," Paul said. "I don't believe that. Children — they just love their families."