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Haitian Adoption: What It Says About America

The New York Times published a magnificent story about the Heaton family of Roca, Nebraska (population 130), who are in the process of adopting two Haitian girls, ages 7 and 2. Like 900 other Haitian children just flown to the United States, these children had been in the adoption process for years, stymied by bureaucracy and inertia. Spurred by the humanitarian crisis of the Haitian earthquake, the United States has eased its visa requirements for Haitian children in the final stages of the adoption process. According to the Times story, when the Heatons landed in Omaha with their new daughters, they were "greeted by throngs of well-wishers toting teddy bears and balloons."

I was moved by this but not surprised. The United States is the most open country in the world when it comes to adoption. In many parts of the world, blood means everything and people would never adopt outside their family. In the United States, we have a far more expansive view of family. In fact, half of all adoptions in the world are by Americans.

And it's not just that Americans adopt. Americans adopt children that might be shunned in other countries. The younger of the children being adopted by the Heatons had a medical condition that left her brain partially exposed. The family made numerous trips to Haiti and hosted the child when she came to the United States for a medical procedure to correct the problem.

Kathy Heaton described her reasons for adopting. "We can't think of anything we'd rather do than raise these children and make a difference." The Heaton family is like tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Americans, driven to adopt out of a sense of altruism. Last year Americans adopted 55,000 abused and neglected children from foster care. It is as simple as wanting to help a hurt child.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the story of the Haitian orphans is that it took a natural disaster of such tragic proportions to shake the bureaucracy. Many, like the two girls being adopted by the Heaton family, have spent much of their lives in an orphanage while waiting for the "system" to work. Why did it take such a tragedy to free these 900 children?

Unfortunately, there is a sad parallel between the plight of Haitian children waiting in orphanages and the 125,000 American children waiting in foster care to be adopted. That parallel is a system that too often acts as a roadblock instead of an emergency service responding to the urgent need of a child without a family.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, in the United States, there are far, far, more people interested in adopting children from foster care than there are children in need of families. Talk to people trying to adopt from foster care (and I have spoken to thousands) and you will quickly learn that there are far too many places in the child welfare system where the incentives for inaction outweigh the incentives for action. So children wait.

I have worked in this field for 20 years and I have seen countless examples of good people wanting nothing more than to help a hurt child heal. I have seen children in wheelchairs adopted. I have seen a child scarred by cigarette burns adopted by a woman who recognized those scars from her own childhood abuse. Last year I met an 18-year-old kid with "thug life" tattooed on his arms. He had just been adopted and when he spoke about his "mama" he wept.

We are blessed in this country to have an overabundance of families who want to provide homes to children in need. It should not take a catastrophic natural disaster to motivate us to sweep away the barriers that prevent children in need from having the families they deserve.

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