Op-Ed on Haiti’s Orphans from CCAI’S Executive Director

Orphan Children of Haiti Deserve a Future

Since last week’s devastating earthquake, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) has been engaged in helping Members of Congress in developing an appropriate response to the immediate and long term needs of Haiti’s orphaned children.   Within hours of this tragedy, Congressional offices were flooded with offers of help for orphans and requests for media interviews on this subject have been unending. As I watch all of this unfold, I find myself with mixed emotions.  On one hand, I am happy to see the world so keenly focused on the needs of orphan children.   On the other, I am perplexed as to why it has to take a natural disaster for the world to focus on a problem that has existed for some time.  As has been reported, there were 380,000 orphans in Haiti when the earthquake occurred (UNICEF, 2007).   To put that into perspective, that is a population higher than that of Pittsburgh.  A small portion of these children found refuge in the country’s 184 licensed orphanages, while the vast majority was condemned to a life on the streets.  How they were orphaned is also no mystery.  Like in so many other places, it was poverty, war, disease and cultural norms, which forced their families to abandon them.   And these conditions are only going to be made worse by recent events.

When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago, our country learned many lessons.  One thing we learned was that after a disaster of this magnitude you can do one of two things.  You can spend your time and resources to rebuild a place to be the same as it was before or you can use the opportunity to begin anew.  Take for example the public education system in New Orleans.   In the five years since the storm, Louisiana leaders have used the combination of an unprecedented level of national investment, innovative best practices, and reform minded leadership to put New Orleans public schools on track to become the best in our Nation.

As a global community, we have the same choice here.  We can go about making plans to provide protection to orphan children in temporary shelters until they can be returned to their orphanages, or worse the streets, or we can take the recent outpouring of international support and use it to begin anew.  Working together, we can help the people of Haiti to develop a child welfare system in which Haitian children are being raised in safe, loving and permanent families, not by institutions.  Such a system could be built upon international best practices in preserving families, providing foster care, as well as promoting domestic and international adoption.

Surely, plans to rebuild the physical infrastructure of Haiti will not call for rebuilding the concrete on concrete buildings that all but folded from the quake.  No doubt, they will call for the buildings to be rebuilt using the latest earthquake-proof technology.  The orphans of Haiti need and deserve this same forward thinking approach. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that the only structures that need our help in rebuilding are physical.

Kathleen Strottman is the Executive Director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute(CCAI), nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the millions of children around the world in need of permanent, safe, and loving homes and to eliminating the barriers that hinder these children from realizing their basic right of a family. Kathleen comes to this role after serving nearly 8 years on staff for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA)