PITTSBURGH: Haitian Orphans and Expedited Adoptions

Kristine Long, Pitt Law '11, relates the findings of Anna Kavalauskas and Silpa Swarnapuri, Pitt Law '12, who looked into the measures taken to facilitate adoption proceedings for 54 Haitian orphans relocated to Pittsburgh...

In January, Haiti was struck by an earthquake which devastated the nation and brought attention and aid from all over the world. In addition to shortages of food, housing, and medical care, the earthquake left many orphaned children. One of the immediate responses came a week after the earthquake, when 54 Haitian orphans from the Bresma orphanage in Port-au-Prince were flown into Pittsburgh. The city was chosen as a site for expediting adoption proceedings for these children due to its success with relocating domestic refugees during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. The Center of Life, a community organization in Pittsburgh, had already established a partnership with Bresma.

According to Allegheny County Department of Human Services Director Marc Cherna, Pittsburgh was a natural choice for the temporary housing of the orphans. "Pittsburgh seems to be the model, people have confidence and we handle [these situations] well," he commented after the adoption proceedings concluded. Allegheny County began preparing for all possible emergencies and had Port Authority buses and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center ambulances ready to transport the children from the airport to Children's Hospital.

At the time of the earthquake, most of the children were already in the process of being adopted through a private Kentucky adoption agency, and so when the children arrived, Allegheny Department of Human Services staffers had prepared a makeshift courtroom at Children's Hospital because they assumed that they would have jurisdiction to complete the adoption proceedings. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, sent a team of 25 workers to take over and finalize the adoptions. After working long hours, ICE completed 41 out of 54 adoptions, with the remaining 13 children staying at the Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh. Holy Family provides a residential program and works with children who are unable to live with their families. The US government still has to determine the status of these remaining children before further decisions can be made about their future. Sister Linda Yankoski, the Executive Director, spoke of the need to have a more efficient refugee resettlement program in place.

Part of the reason the US is waiting for more information about the orphans is that there have been previous problems with Haitian adoption proceedings. In 2007, UNICEF estimated that there were 380,000 orphans in Haiti. However, these numbers can be misleading, because many parents and legal guardians who are temporarily unable to care for their children due to poverty leave them in orphanages for short periods of time. As a result of this practice, determining which of the children were actually orphans before the earthquake has become a challenging task. Currently, an adoption moratorium is being sought by aid agencies in an attempt to allow parents and relatives to reunite with their children when possible.

There are competing policies, however, because other agencies encourage expediting adoptions because orphaned children require specialized assistance and need immediate attention. In the past, Haitian adoption proceedings could last up to three years, but the Haitian government is now attempting to speed up the process because they aim to place children with families as soon as possible. However, when adoptions are rushed, rumors of child trafficking and abuse can become serious concerns. Currently, the US Department of Health and Human Services works with refugees, but it does not have regulations specifically directed towards children, and is therefore unprepared to handle these types of cases. In response, Allegheny County has provided staff to help the government develop protocol in this area. Cherna stated he would not be surprised if Congress began to look at this issue more closely and implement safeguards against child trafficking practices. The rumors of child trafficking were strengthened when only days after speaking with Cherna, there was a report that 10 US citizens affiliated with a Baptist church were arrested for attempting to bring 33 children into the Dominican Republic. An Austrian charity, SOS Children's Villages, has taken temporary responsibility for the children and confirmed that at least 10 of them were not orphans.

While speaking to those involved with the adoptions in Pittsburgh, the question that came to our minds was how, if the Haitian proceedings are notoriously long and there are policy implications for extending adoption proceedings, did the 54 Haitian children come into Pittsburgh so quickly? Cherna seemed to believe that the Haitian government did not want to expedite the procedures so drastically, but the children obviously needed immediate help. Also, some of the children were already in various stages of the adoption process and the 41 families had already invested roughly over $45,000 in adoption costs. The next question is whether there will be more Haitian orphans in Pittsburgh this year. While it is possible, according to Cherna, the process has been affected by the arrest of the American Baptist group. There are still countless children left homeless in Haiti, but since the arrests, only 3 more children have been airlifted out of Port-au-Prince.

Finally, we asked how the experience has affected the Allegheny County staff. Cherna described how rewarding it has been, adding that this was the reason he went into the field in the first place. However, Allegheny County staff still spend most of their time working with local citizens in need. As Cherna states, "I tell people every time they call that there are plenty of kids right here in Allegheny County who need a home." These children also need to be adopted and the US government encourages domestic adoptions by offering health care and education subsidies.

Mentioned in this article:

Allegheny County Department of Human Services

Holy Family Institute

Photos Courtesy of: Eva Mueller

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