Orphans of Disaster

03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Amidst the horror and heartbreak in Haiti, there is the added atrocity of children losing their parents.

Because there are no real numbers to put on the death and destruction from Haiti's earthquake, the estimators have free reign. With regard to orphans - children who lost one or both parents in the earthquake - there is a claim that a million children were orphaned. Such estimates are almost certainly too high, says the charity SOS Children's Villages - who report that the number of orphans who can't be reunited with family members after such a disaster is usually closer to 5% of the death toll, though it could be somewhat higher in this case. If they're right, the wild estimates could be costly:

The less accurate and more exaggerated the figures, the more risk of rapid removal of children, who may still have parents searching for them, from their country, their culture and their family. Some children already in the process of adoption out of Haiti should of course be allowed to leave. Perhaps ones already identified as orphans before the earthquake. But children who may have just been orphaned should be cared for, counselled and loved locally, whilst family is traced...

Those expedited adoptions have led to a group of 53 orphans coming to Pittsburgh, children who were already in the adoption pipeline but whose paperwork was accelerated by the Haitian government. The news prompted hundreds of calls from other potential parents interested in fostering or adopting the children of disaster - and a similar operation is underway to the Netherlands.

The U.S. has pledged to do all it can to facilitate these adoptions quickly without compromising international standards for adoption procedures. That presumably would not include the ambitious archdiocese of Miami's plan to airlift many Haitian children to Florida, as was done with thousands of children after the Cuban Revolution, in a secret operation dubbed Operation Pedro Pan.

Haiti is currently the #8 source of international adoptions into the U.S., with 2,712 children entering as adopted orphans in the past 10 years. There are half a million Haitian-born Blacks in the U.S. at last count, but more trace their ancestry to the first former slave republic.

Disaster's children

The earthquake recalls the controversy over orphans from the South Asian Tsunami in December 2004. Some of the affected countries' adherence to the Hague Convention - which includes standards of verification that children are truly orphaned - along with opposition by some Muslims toward adoption by non-Muslims, blocked the attempts of would-be parents from the U.S. and other rich countries to adopt children who had lost their parents in the tsunami.

Losing family members - parents or children - takes many tolls. Parents and children often support each other economically, at different life stages, so such losses exacerbate poverty. And lost family members mean lifetimes of love, parenting and caring lost too. When the family loss happens with a traumatic event such as earthquake or tsunami, the hardship is compounded by disrupted housing, schools, healthcare, other friends and relatives, and semblance of routine. (Devastating mental health impact has been documented from the tsunami, including post-traumatic stress in many children, but we'll never know the full extent of that damage because of the limited services to treat as well as document it.)

Unfolding at a slower rate but ultimately more catastrophic, the AIDS epidemic has left millions of orphans. The United Nations estimates more than 11 million children in Africa alone lost one or both parents to AIDS. There is a reasonable debate over these estimates, since lack of health care services goes along with poor data quality, but "millions" is good enough to make the point. (In the U.S., about 100,000 children have lost their mother to AIDS.)


The Haitian earthquake calls attention to global problems, and highlights the particular risks of family loss and disruption for children. As with global poverty, however, even when international adoptions are great for children - with proper safeguards and support - this can't be seen as a solution. After all, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1 per day.

The adoption response reminds me of the rescue scenes. As the second week after the earthquake dragged on, the vast resources - including media spotlights - poured into saving a tiny handful of possible survivors still buried in the rubble may have produced positive attention among potential charitable donors. But it also represented efforts diverted from the cheaper, more effective work of providing clean water and shelter to thousands of people just blocks away.

Cross-posted from the Family Inequality blog.