The Dangerous Desire to Adopt Haitian Babies

by Guest Contributor (and frequent commenter) Atlasien

Haitian American Adoptive Parent Margalita Belhumer

Haitian American Adoptive Parent Margalita Belhumer

I’m a foster care adoptive parent. I can’t speak for all of us, since we’re a diverse bunch. Some of us have also adopted internationally and support international adoption strongly. Others despise the institution, and are angry about what the perceived hypocrisy of parents who walk past the foster kids in their own cities and states so that they can adopt from a far-away country. I’m somewhere in the middle, but definitely leaning more towards the anti side, especially after this week.

This week, I’ve been deeply disturbed at the swelling public desire to adopt Haitians. Haitian orphan babies. The very name is problematic. In our imagination, an orphan has no family, but the vast majority of “orphans” all over the world have living parents, and almost every single one has living extended relatives. And the children that need family care are, overwhelmingly, older children.

Quite a few other parents I know are really pissed off about it. If you want to adopt, why not consider adopting from foster care? Why Haitian babies? I can guess at some of the answers. Most of them will not be very flattering.

There’s a certain group of white adoptive international parents that dominate much of the discourse around adoption in this country. The most organized of these are evangelical Christians, but many of them are secular in their beliefs on adoption. They’re across the political spectrum, ultraconservative to ultraliberal, though if I had to hazard a guess, most of them are center-right in politics. I believe these people are, basically, a force for evil. If I put it in any nicer words, that would be a lie. Examining their belief system, and their potential political influence on the recovery efforts in Haiti, is a pretty terrifying process.

I was first made aware of the Rumor Queen website several years ago. I was doing some research on Chinese adoption for a blog post. They’re a large community of parents adopting from China, and the site is known for posting a lot of useful data about wait times. A few years ago controversy happened in the forum when some Chinese-American parents were accused by white parents of “jumping the line”. There is, in fact, an expedited program for some Chinese-Americans; it’s quite restrictive and any Chinese-Americans greater than second-generation do not qualify. The fact that some of these Chinese-Americans were possibly more worthy of Chinese babies because of factors like “language” and “culture” and “race” apparently enraged some of the white parents. I read about it second hand from a couple of really angry, hurt Chinese-American families. This episode should give you a taste of the quality of discourse at this and similar websites. There are dissident voices, but the environments are most often dominated by white parents who refuse to consider any of the complex ethical issues surrounding transracial, transcultural, international adoption. They’re saving children. How can you argue with that, right?

These online communities are often very hostile places for adoptive parents of color. They’re even more hostile, of course, to adoptees and birth/first parents who want to discuss more complicated perspectives of adoption.

I stumbled on Rumor Queen again recently and was shocked to see what was going on. The whole site has gone gaga over adopting Haitian babies. It began with concerns about Haitian children, and is evolving into a coordinated plan of action to put pressure on political representatives for a Haitian babylift.

Also, I’m hearing about plans to bring more children (as in, thousands) into the U.S. all at once on airplanes. There are some precedents for this, there was Operation Peter Pan / Pedro Pan in Cuba in the 60′s, and then there was Operation Babylift in Vietnam in the 70′s. IIRC they did something similar in Korea in the 50′s, but I’m not sure it was given a name. At any rate, there is precedent for allowing a whole bunch of orphans into the U.S. who do not already have parents waiting for them. The U.S. government has not yet given the green light on this, and I’m unclear at this point who exactly gets the final word on it. If anyone out there has more information about it, please share. If it can be done in a way that ensures they are only bringing true orphans over then I’m all for it and would get behind it in a letter writing campaign. However, I would want someone overseeing the effort who can make sure things are done ethically. Someone with the ability and the clout to insist upon it.

The concern that “things are done ethically”… that’s a nice thought. The comments dispense with that window dressing. They’re full of demands that we have to get the kids out now, now, now, before they die, die, die. The practical reality is that after a horrific disaster of the magnitude of the Haiti quake, it’s completely impossible to determine whether any abandoned child is a “true orphan”. It’s a process that is going to take months and even years.

This post from a more informed international adoptive parent blogger is a more reality-based examination of the issue. Adoptee bloggers who also study adoption academically — among them Harlow’s Monkey and A Birth Project — are deeply concerned about the parallels to massive child extraction events like Operation Babylift. These were not shining humanitarian moments. Many of the adopted children found out later that they had parents and siblings left behind who wanted them, or even relatives in the United States who were searching for them.

In countries like Haiti that suffer so severely from poverty, citizens have to take the risks of globalization, but reap few of the rewards. Families are split apart as young people go to the cities to work, or to other countries, leaving their children in the care of relatives. Family ties are weakened by poverty, by the constant presence of disease, death and loss, but also paradoxically strengthened as families come up with new ways to endure hardship and stay together. A white middle-class Midwestern mother doesn’t understand why a Haitian mother would leave her children at an orphanage, hoping to take them back later. The white mother could understand if she really thought about it on a rational basis. But the lure of the white savior narrative is powerful, and sweeps her up in a rush of emotion: fear, longing, desire. It’s because the Haitian mother is a bad mother who doesn’t deserve her kids anymore. The innocent baby is not yet contaminated by this evil culture. They deserve something better, cleaner, richer, more tender, whiter.

Here’s another comment from that thread.

RumorQueen Says:

And how many children will die while they are building a new infrastructure?

Sometimes you do what you can, not what the ideal would seem to be.

It’s like the guy rescuing starfish on the beach, there are a hundred thousand starfish and a guy is throwing some of them back in the water. Someone tells him there are too many, he can’t possibly make a difference all by himself. And he says, as he throws one in the water “I made a difference to that one”.

There are going to be all kinds of issues these kids will deal with. I’ve gone out of my way so my kids know I did not “rescue” them… but that isn’t going to be able to be said for these kids. Sure, it’s not an ideal situation. But would it be better to let them die?

Analogies simplify complex issues, sometimes in an accurate way, but this analogy is just smoke and mirrors. International adoptive parents are really fond of this starfish analogy and this is not the first time I’ve seen it in play. It always boggles my mind. Why is adopting a third-world “orphan” like throwing a starfish back in the ocean? Maybe the poor starfishes needed to be on the beach as part of their mating cycle and the guy is messing with them because he’s sadistic. Maybe he has a weird sexual fetish about echinoderm-hurling. Or maybe he’s just a dumb-ass. The analogy effectively obscures the issue of motivation, as well as the implication of “saving”.

Let me try another analogy. Let’s say you live with your child in a house that burns down. You’re dazed, confused, and burned. Your neighbor says, “I think I should take care of your child”. You say, “Thanks for your offer. But my child really needs me now, and I think they wouldn’t sleep well in a strange house. If you could just give us a tent and some food and some bandages so we can camp out while I get better and look into rebuilding, we’ll be OK.” Your neighbor says, “that’s too logistically complicated and I’m concerned about the security situation. I just want your child.” You say, “Thanks again for your concern and I’m grateful for any help you can give me. If you’re so worried about my child, maybe you could let both of us stay in your guestroom for a while? That way my child could be safe and would sleep well too.” Your neighbor says, “No, we have an interdiction-at-sea policy and visa restrictions will not be relaxed. Just give me your child. Actually, nevermind. I don’t even need your permission anymore. I’ll just take them.”

Here’s the worst comment on the thread. It was let through without a rejoinder. Mine was blocked.

49. Proud2Adopt Says:
EthioChinaadopt – the issue is that if someone is paying $30,000 to adopt a child, they want a baby! Its as simple as that! I’m really tired of hearing about how so many of these kids are just split from their parents. Lets get the 380,000 kids that were ALREADY orphans OUT of the country & into waiting homes, that way the focus of orphanages can be on those children who are NEW orphans or split from parents & families. The reality to me is, I would LOVE to adopt one of these children. No, this isn’t a NEW passion spurred from seeing photos on TV. But hopefully with the dire situation they will waive much of the 25K+ fees for families like mine to adopt one of these children here! Amen!

I admit I wasn’t nearly as diplomatic as I could have been. But that’s not my strong point. I was way too irritated with these people. In case you’re wondering why the maniac above me was referring to $30,000 for a fresh baby, I really don’t know. I’m not up-to-date on the latest prices in the international baby market.

The next babylift thread was racist beyond belief. Rumor Queen ran footage of a riot at a food distribution point.

Desperate target Haiti’s orphanages

In a country where it is survival of the fittest, what chance do babies and children in an orphanage have?

The Vietnamese Operation Babylift was driven both by racism and fear of communism. But this framing, on the other hand, is pure 100% unadulterated racism, invoking the most damaging stereotype of black people invented by white imperialists. “Survival of the fittest” implies that Haitians are nothing more than animals. Their children need to be removed immediately or they won’t even grow up to be human beings.

I haven’t watched a lot of news in the past week — probably less than 10 minutes of footage a day from sources like CNN — but in those brief times, I’ve seen plenty of examples of orderly food distribution. I’ve seen Haitians rescuing each other. I’ve read accounts by independent media, small media and even the mainstream media — “Despite isolated incidents of looting, violence and other criminal activity, the overall security situation remains calm” — that security fears have been massively overblown.

Rumor Queen attacked me for my blocked comment later on in that thread. I then left a harsher comment (I refrained from profanity but did use the word “strip-mining”) and my comment was, of course, also blocked.

Luckily, policy makers aren’t listening to these people with full attention anymore. There are competing voices. UNICEF, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages, pretty much every single large secular children’s aid organization, plus some of the religious ones, are advocating a total stop to new international adoptions until quake recovery gets underway and far-flung families begin to come together again. Adoption should be the last resort. I agree with that. I’m somewhat moderate in that I don’t see a huge problem with removing children who have already been through most of the process and have already met their adoptive parents. If a bond is already there, there’s no point adding another loss. And a lot of the adoption process is true red tape that doesn’t serve anyone’s interests. But airlifting children who just “appear to be orphans” (as several Catholic leaders in Miami have been demanding) and almost certainly cutting them off from their roots… this is wrong. It’s wrong for the children, it’s wrong for their relatives, and it’s wrong for the country of Haiti.

There was an adoption story I heard on NPR yesterday that really touched me. It’s not the typical adoption narrative we’ve been hearing:

Margalita Belhumer, a Haitian-American who lives in New York City, was visiting Haiti when the quake struck nine days ago. She shaded her eyes from the tropical sun as her 8-year-old daughter, Melissa, squatted at her feet.

“I’m seeking to leave with my daughter. People are dead, place crumbled. She has nowhere to live, so I can’t leave without her,” Belhumer said.

She said she raised Melissa since the girl was a newborn infant, wrapped in a sheet and left on the sidewalk in front of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Child abandonment by destitute mothers is not uncommon in Haiti. While Belhumer worked at her job as a security guard in New York, she paid a family to take care of Melissa. Belhumer said she had begun the adoption paperwork before the quake struck.

“I started the adoption process, but I started last month. But I’ve had her since the first day she was born,” she said.

If any adoption is expedited, it should be these ones. But these are also the people who are least likely to have the ears of politicians. Everyone wants Haitian babies. Haitian adults, and Haitian families, are another matter. There has been no announcement that more visas will be granted to reunite Haitian-American families.

This report by a US adoptee-rights blogger, based on notes from a USCIS teleconference, has a chilling quote.

Hundreds of adoptive parents, paps, orphanage directors with dozens of children, and even, apparently, loose children gather outside the US Embassy. Many come unannounced demanding entry. Officials have set up and are refining procedures for entry into the compound, interviews, and decision making. (Procedures were discussed in detail, but I”ll hold that for another entry.) They emphasize that the Embassy needs advance notice of petitioners so someone can go outside, locate them, and escort them through the gates. Only adoption cases are being handled. (Haitians with other Embassy business, including those with pending pre-quake visa and immigration applications are being turned away for now.)

Talk of adopting orphaned Haitian babies seems to be swirling all over. And though I’m concentrating my ire on a certain class of white adoptive parents, I’ll have to note, not everyone full of this dangerous desire is white.

“I wanna just go down there and get some of those babies,” Latifah said on the Today Show Thursday. “If you got a hook up, please get me a couple of Haitian kids. It’s time. I’m ready.”

As someone who has adopted before, here’s some questions I’d ask of anybody in the U.S., of any race, who is really serious about this.

- Do you know what a homestudy is? Are you ready to pass one?
- Do you realize it will be almost impossible to adopt a baby, hard to adopt a toddler, and that the vast majority of children who really need to be adopted are older children?
- Do you know what attachment disorder is? Children with inconsistent caregiving in early years often develop this to some degree. They may experience the expression of love as a terrifying loss of self. They may do anything in their power to make you stop loving them, including physically attacking you, your pets or your other children. There is no known 100% effective therapy for this.
- Do you understand the effects of various prenatal exposures? Do you understand and accept that your child may grow up with irreparable brain damage?
- Are you ready to establish routine visits to one, two, three, all of these and more: therapist, psychiatrist, physical therapist, neurologist?
- Are you prepared that your child may resent you or hate you for taking them away from everything and everyone they’ve known and loved? And that even if you’ve explained to them that they’re never going back, they may still try to push you away, because in the back of their minds, if they’re bad enough, you’ll send them away, and they’ll go back to everything and everyone they’ve known and loved?
- Are you prepared to have a child so terrified from trauma that they act as if they were half their developmental age? That they wake you up screaming every night at 3 in the morning? That they rage uncontrollably if you don’t stay by their side every waking minute?
- Are you prepared for your friends and family to perhaps shrink away from you because they don’t understand why your child acts the way they act — maybe it’s because you don’t love them enough, or you don’t spank them enough — you’re doing it all wrong and it’s all your fault.

If you can answer “yes” to all of these, congratulations. You might be ready to adopt from foster care. To adopt from Haiti, answer all the above questions, add the effects of malnutrition, add a language barrier, and multiply the child’s trauma by a factor of ten. And subtract a lot of money. Unlike foster care adoptions, which are basically free, you’re going to have to pay legal fees. Maybe even $30,000. And children from foster care will have permanent Medicaid, no matter your income level, but if you adopt internationally, it’s up to you to find a way to pay for all those psychiatrist visits you’ll almost certainly be needing later on.

Here are some additional questions:

- Are you aware of transracial adoption issues? If you’re a black American, are you aware that transcultural issues can be just as intense as transracial ones?
- Do you have a connection to a Haitian-American community? Do you speak Kreyol or French?
- Your child will likely be Catholic and think of themselves as Catholic. Are you? If not, how will you handle the difference?
- The ethical thing to do is to try to establish contact with your child’s relatives in Haiti. Are you prepared for the fact that you, as a rich American (no matter what your income level) will then be regarded as a financial benefactor/patron? If you’ve grown up in the US and absorbed our surface-egalitarian values, you will be unaccustomed to this kind of role, and extremely bad at it. If you refuse to make contact because of this issue, or because of fear that your child will love you better if you cut them off from their roots, then… well… you suck. I’ll leave it at that.

You’d better be sure you can handle it. If you can’t, your child will pay the highest cost. If the adoption falls through, your child may end up in foster care, possibly so scarred that they’ll never get another chance at a family.

I’ve said a lot of harsh things in this post. But I also want to note that this desire can also be understood in a positive way. Children inspire love. I believe in certain universal values, and across every culture and all of history, people love children and want to take care of them. An equally universal trait, unfortunately, is the desire to exploit children. Children don’t speak fully for themselves, so we speak for them. It’s necessary, but it’s also dangerous. Exploiting a child can be as blatant as child sexual abuse, or sweatshop labor… and it can be as subtle as wanting our children to validate us as parents. Wanting them to love us, and being angry when they don’t show us love.

We’re getting into grounds of philosophy and religion here, but I don’t think a completely pure love is truly possible on this earth, because love needs knowledge, and pure knowledge is impossible. We try, but we don’t know fully what’s best for the other person, so we make guesses, and our guesses are based on imperfect knowledge. And so exploitation creeps in.

My religion talks a lot about the impossibility of individual purity and makes the acknowledgment of imperfection absolutely necessary. I think many other belief systems address the same issue in different ways. For example, in Christianity, Jesus Christ represents a pure kind of love, and other kinds of love exist in relation to that standard. The answer is not to stop loving, or to stop trying to understand, but to realize that our love is always endangered by selfishness. If we ever think our love is pure, we need to stop thinking along that track, take a step back and think again. Don’t stop loving, just stop thinking that your love is infallible and all-knowing.

I’ll close with a few reality-based ways to help Haitian children in Haitian families in the short term:

- Donate to SOS Children’s Villages, Save the Children or UNICEF.
- Sign this AIUSA petition to request an end to interdiction-at-sea policy
- Contact your representative. Ask them to support an increase in refugee visas for Haitians and expedited family reunification visas for Haitian-Americans. Ask them to support the airlift of Haitian children unaccompanied by family ONLY for the purposes of temporary medical hosting and NOT for the purposes of adoption.
- If you live close to a Haitian-American community, contact their organizations and ask if there is anything you can do to support community efforts.