PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Anne-Marie Saintou walks with a megaphone along the dusty lanes of a Haitian fishing village, imploring people not to make the same mistake she did.
“Ladies, say ‘NO!’ she shouts. “We will not give away our children anymore.”
Saintou is part of a public awareness campaign that reflects a growing disenchantment with international adoption in Haiti. Women are going out daily to warn poor Haitians about recruiters for orphanages who roam the countryside offering money, or false promises, to desperate parents struggling to raise children in the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished country.
She speaks from bitter personal experience.
The 42-year-old year old, walking the unpaved streets in a long skirt and blouse with two companions, said she placed her 3-year-old daughter, Mikerline, up for adoption 12 years go with the understanding that the child would get an education and come back. She received photos and a letter but lost contact after three years. “I never heard from her again.”
An overhaul of the child-welfare system is drawing wide praise for addressing serious flaws. Some were exposed in the chaotic aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, and others by accounts from people like Saintou, victimized by spotty regulation in a country that has become a favored choice for Americans seeking a child.
The Haitian government, through its Institute of Social Well-Being and Research, has prohibited private adoptions, restricted the number of foreign adoption agencies accredited to work in the country and set a quota that limits the number of children who can be adopted internationally per year. It also imposed regulations aimed at addressing longstanding complaints that Haitian parents were too often pressured or manipulated into giving up children for adoption without fully understanding the ramifications.
Experts in child welfare say the changes, which went into full effect as of April 1, 2014, when Haiti became a signatory to the Hague Convention on International Adoption, have gone a long way to cleaning up a murky and corruption-prone process.
Since the earthquake, which killed more than 300,000 people according to the official estimate, the government has worked with UNICEF to rewrite the adoption code and bolster social services in a country where 60 percent of the population gets by on less than $2 a day. The government has also closed about 40 substandard orphanages and added regulations to limit opportunities for corruption within the system.
“It has been too easy to adopt children internationally here and in some countries of Africa,” said Kristine Peduto, chief of the child protection unit in Haiti for UNICEF. “People were coming as if they were coming to the market.”
The new system requires counseling for families considering giving children up for international adoption that explains they may never see their child again, and a cooling-off period to allow for a change of mind. It requires social workers to try to find a relative or even a neighbor who could step in to help. “The reforms are intended to keep children with their families because that is the best place for them,” said Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, director-general of the country’s social services agency.
Some proponents of international adoption, however, feel the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. The social services agency approved 653 adoptions last year, about half the number approved annually before the earthquake, and a small fraction of the estimated 50,000 children in Haitian orphanages, the vast majority of whom have at least one living parent.