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The 10 Central Valley Baptist Church in Idaho volunteers who have been detained in Port-au-Prince for trying to take 33 Haitian children into the Dominican Republic have had the positive effect of raising the profile of children in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Though the group’s actions at best grew out of extraordinary hubris and poor judgment, at worst out of something more sinister, their act at least raises a larger question: What are some real and effective ways to help children in Haiti now that the immediate post-disaster days and weeks have passed?

The discussion has been dominated by the subject of adoption. This seems to have come about partly because of actions of US government, which is working to expedite adoptions of Haitian children already underway.  The New York Times last week dedicated its “Room for Debate” to the Haitian adoption question, and CNN ran a story on an on the effort to push through cross-border adoptions that have been stalled because of the earthquake.

Although the adoption issue is very real and poignant both for parents whose adoptions were stalled by the quake and for those who are heartbroken to see images of Haitian children in orphanages, adoption is nonetheless a remote possibility for so many of the affected children and complicated for even more. The Haitian government is rightly balking at any efforts to expand the adoption options. Haiti reportedly had more than 380,000 children in orphanages before the quake. The experts on the Times blog for the most part agree that cross-border adoptions that were underway before the earthquake should be allowed to proceed—so long as the adoptive parents have gone through the series of checks necessary to ensure they are fit parents. But the stickier question of whether adoption should be expedited for children who were not already paired seems impossible to address independent of larger issues of disaster recovery and poverty alleviation for the country as a whole.

A photo montage in the Wall Street Journal makes the same point addressed by Times commentator EJ Graff of Brandeis University, which is that children in orphanages in developing countries are not necessarily orphans. Instead, destitute families sometimes place their children with social services in an effort to get them three squares and an education. This is less an act of abandonment than of desperation—witness what some of our country’s own desperate parents did when Nebraska passed its “safe haven” law without putting a limit on the child’s age.

In the aftermath of a disaster the confusion between orphans and “unaccompanied children” is exacerbated, because children are often separated from parents or caregivers. Save the Children reported that its efforts to create a child registry in Aceh Province after the Asian tsunami resulted in reuniting nearly half the children with their families. Graff proposes that Haitian and American officials allow a year for surviving parents and family members to be reunited, a reasonable span given the need to make sure that the children are in fact in need of placement and that all parties—the orphanages and the adopting parents—are acting in the child’s best interests. This says nothing, of course, to the broader implications of placing children traumatized by tragedy with families that may not share the same ethnic and cultural background.

If cool heads prevail, the solution for many of Haiti’s children will not be international adoption. So what can donors otherwise do to help? In my next post, some humble ideas.

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