Thursday, February 12, 2009

Signing of the Standards of Practice

After months of planning, editing, and worrying, it finally came to pass. On January 30th, 2009, the STANDARDS OF PRACTICE FOR CHILD WELFARE ORGANIZATIONS WITH RESPECT TO INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION were presented and signed at a grand ceremony hosted be the US Consulate at the Embassy. Approximately 42 people from four different nations gathered to witness and participate.

What are the Standards of Practice? At first glance they are a document, sponsored by the Joint Council of International Children's Services (http://www.jcics.org/) describing a professional standard of practice that has as its core values integrity, honesty, transparency, and professional service delivery. They represent the collective will of the international adoption community and serve as the minimum standards of practice by which all signatories will serve children, birth parents, prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents. The Standards offer protections for everyone involved in an international adoption, and ensure that the child's welfare is always first and foremost.

Background
Joint Council first sent a delegation to Haiti in late July of 2008. Our intention was to meet with orphanage directors, US officials, and members of the Haitian government to see if there was anything we could do to help with the extensive delays in the Haitian adoption process.

Not so many years ago, international adoptions from Haiti were relatively quick and simple. Children were often able to leave the country with their new forever families just eight or nine months following referral. Today, various court processes, bureaucracy, and complications have slowed adoptions to a crawl, with many taking eighteen months, twenty-four months, or even longer.

The delay has been hard for waiting families to bear. Children are growing up in institutions, waiting for their new families to be allowed to come for them But there has been an even more dire consequence. Haiti has very few social services available to the masses. Most aid is private, and many creches (orphanages) are actively involved in serving their communities.

Not just adoptions...
Our partner orphanage, Brebis de Saint-Michel de L'Attalaye, or BRESMA, is very active in humanitarian aid. We operate a free school, which provides education to 160 children. Not only do the children receive all of their school supplies, but they are given a large meal at noon and all of the clothes they need for school - right down to their socks, shoes, and underwear. The relief from providing weekday clothing and the largest meal of the day has quite literally allowed dozens of Haitian families to stay together when otherwise the children might have been abandoned.

In the past, our orphanage always kept several cribs open in a special area for emergency services to the neighborhood. I would usually arrive to see three or four infants on IV fluids and medication, with our trained nurses and their mothers hovering over them supervising their recovery. In Haiti, something as simple as diarrhea can and does kill children by the thousands. The basic medication and care that our orphanage was able to dispense to babies in the community saved children by the dozens from a pointless and unnecessary death. I'm using the past tense because we are not saving them anymore. We don't have a free crib, and our supplies are stretched to the limit to care for the children in our custody.

No room at the inn...
All of the orphanage directors I work with are in the same situation. With adoptions stretching on for years, we are all out of money, space and time. All of us are failing to serve the desperate families outside our doors as we struggle to care for the children in our houses until they can go home to their adoptive families. Childcare which was ample to last for eight months was spend a year ago. There is no extra to share. We have nothing left to give.

Why the delays?
The adoption delays are caused by one major obstacle. Quite simply, we are asking Haitian courts to break the law in the majority of the adoptions we try to have approved. The Constitution, written in 1974 under the Duvalier regime, clearly specifies who may adopt:
  • Parents age 35 or older
  • Married a minimum of 10 years
  • NO children

Very few families applying to adopt from Haiti meet these criteria. The law does allow for Presidential Dispensation to allow families who do not meet these standards to adopt.

For many years, Haitian courts simply ignored the law and approved adoptions to families who do not conform. Under the leadership of President Rene Preval, Haiti is progressing towards a more orderly and democratic era. I, for one, am very enthusiastic about Haitian courts rigorously upholding Haitian law, even though at the moment it is costing us dearly.

A two-part solution
The Joint Council, UNICEF, and the Haitian Creche directors' association are working together on both a short term and a long term solution to solve the current crisis. First, we are lobbying for an efficient and consistent Presidential Dispensation procedure. Under the current law, families who are approved for adoption by Haitian Social Services (IBESR) can be presented to the Ministry of Justice for Dispensation. The MOJ has processed at least 13 cases from two different orphanages, keeping each for less than a month, as of the time of this posting. The dossiers are now at the Presidential Palace, where the next step in the process is unclear.


The second phase is to lobby for the passage of the proposed new adoption law, co-authored by UNICEF. The new law includes protections for Haitian children, their biological families, and even their adoptive families. It has far more liberal guidelines for potential adoptive families. Stay tuned for how we plan to advocate for the new law - we are going to need your help!



Why the Standards of Practice?
Sadly, child trafficking and unethical adoption practices are still occurring in Haiti. The Standards of Practice specify what a 'good' orphanage is and does. Those who can sign, publicly announcing their adherence to a strict code of ethics and involvement with humanitarian aid, are declaring themselves to be part of the solution. By formally declaring themselves as a group committed to ethical adoptions, the orphanages have achieved a unified and respectable voice to appeal for help for Haitian children - those safe within our walls, and those still outside in the streets.

Among those attending the signing were Assistant Ambassador of Canada, a French Consular Officer, UNICEF’s Child Protection Chief, the US Director of Non-Immigrant Visa Services, and the US Consul General. Representatives from various NGOS, humanitarian aid groups, adoption service providers, and additional creches were also present. The inaugural signatories of the Standards of Practice were:

  • The Alliance for Children
  • Brebis de Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye
  • God’s Littlest Angels
  • Holt Fontana Children's Home
  • Holt International
  • Petite Ange de Chantal
  • Les Petite Enfants de Jesus

Several additional creches are already operating at a very high standard of ethics and transparency, and will be signing in the near future.

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