Haiti, family reunification, and reality….

Just saw a cnn piece about a four year old waiting to be reunited with his family–waiting and waiting. The number of those successfully reunited with families after the quake is distressingly small, relative to the enormous Haitian child welfare problem. The bbc piece, link below, is on those who have (even before the quake) been working with the many Haitian “phantom” children–those for whom there is nothing, and no one.

Read it and weep.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_8798000/8798302.stm

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Haiti’s heartbreaking New Year: What about restaveks?

The Haitian earthquake raised a huge number of moral/ethical dilemmas relating to children. In my International Children’s Rights class, we had several lively discussions about the nature of the restavek system, in which tens of thousands of Haitian children are involved.  At best, recourse to restavek represents a decision by severely impoverished parents to have their children fed and sheltered; at worst, it is essentially a system of slavery….Sexual abuse, deprivation of education and nutrition, and a total dead end in terms of life prospects are all endemic in the restavek system. (A Haitian student of mine told me that it is common for girl restaveks to eventually  become pregnant and to end up rejected by everyone.) The earthquake, of course, made things worse than they had been previously. One cnn story in particular haunted me:

http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/01/29/haiti.restavek.sende.sencil/index.html

In this story, the Unicef worker must decide whether to allow a girl to leave the UN facility, when she had expressed a strong wish not to be returned to the “godfather” for whom she had been a restavek servant. In the end, because the girl’s father said that she should come along with them, Unicef decided to allow her to go. Commentators felt sure that she would ultimately be returned to the godfather….You can see in the photo how painfully, worryingly thin the girl is…..

Maybe I am missing something, but I don’t recall hearing from the international child welfare establishment that the restavek system must end now, must be stopped, and that the children caught up in that system must be set free and placed in appropriate care. No one defends the system, of course, but what does this kind of tepid quasi-acceptance mean?

One can do a trawl of the anti-adoption websites from a few months ago, warning in dire terms about the pro-adoption predators waiting to swoop down to take advantage of Haiti’s woes and steal Haiti’s children–But where is there someone to do a clear, objective study of what is going on with the children who are living as restaveks, as well as those who had been in the many hundreds of orphanages? (The system of unregistered and unregulated Haitian orphanages has been dealt with before on this website..)–This should take place with a determination to ensure that all or at least many of  those children who really need alternatives get then.  I am pretty sure the child welfare commentators would not want a restavek life for themselves or anyone they care about. Read through the cnn story–it is truly heartbreaking….

The “O” Word

There is no need to put inverted commas around the word orphan, as if to remind us that most of those we think of as orphans really aren’t.  (It is just a bizarre coincidence that the movie of the same name is making the rounds.) There are certainly children who have only minimal family involvement, but for whom this involvement is psychologically sustaining if seen in its cultural and economic context. I am not dismissive of those relationships–the proposed “Families for Orphans” legislation does not seem to be, either. At least as I read it and understand it to date.

I can see that debate over the proposed Families for Orphans legislation is going to break along the ususal fault lines. I was concerned at the argument put forward by a writer on the Ethica website in the last day or so (see  http://www.ethicanet.org/fighting-for-%e2%80%9corphans%e2%80%9d#more-1440 ) in which there is an allegation that the legislation would impose US child welfare policy on other countries. (This link has been a little troublesome–click on the error message and it should bring you to the relevant post. If not, try ethicanet.org/ and then go to the featured post by Rachel.) But what I have argued hard for years is that issues related to children living without adequate care are human rights and children’s rights questions, albeit questions that must be understood with sufficient nuance and flexibility. What seems attractive about the potential of the legislation is that it could lead to far greater attention being devoted to facts and individually (and culturally) sensitive determinations.

I defy anyone to read the UNCRC and take from it a clear indication of the way forward on social orphans. The word orphan is indeed suggestive of a huge group of children–those who do not have loving parents or extended family. I am completely supportive of the argument that loving families with limited means and straightened circumstances should be supported and honored. I do not understand how (or why) we would extend that concept to children for whom that is simply not the case, whether in the US, Japan, China, India, Vietnam, or any other country we can think of.

There is a demonstrable psychological and physical toll that being an “orphan” takes. Each country should account to the best of its ability for actual outcomes of these children; Russia has done so to some extent and it is not a pretty picture. For those children who really have a committed “someone,” let’s add all the family assistance available. But where that is not the case, let’s not accept very imperfect substitutes for family. We all know that it is a very dangerous world for genuine social orphans, no matter what their cultural milieu.