CCAI Guest Blogger: Jelani Freeman
I traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) for its 20/20 Vision program – a public-private partnership which exists to increase positive dialogue and the exchange of information among private sector individuals, international and domestic government officials, and Members of Congress. I currently serve on the CCAI Advisory Council and participated in its Foster Youth Internship (FYI) Program in 2003. From its early beginning in 2001, CCAI has been a leader in raising awareness and bringing together like-minded partners to ensure that every child in the world knows the love and support of a family. And that is exactly what its 20/20 Vision Program accomplished in Haiti this summer.
While this was the first time I ever visited Haiti, for many years I had felt a kinship to the island-nation through the literature of one of my favorite authors, Edwidge Danticat. I began reading Danticat as a high school student when I met her at a book signing for her short story collection – Krik Krak. Through her award-winning works like Breath, Eyes and Memory, The Farming of Bones, and The Dew Breaker, Danticat transported me to the countryside and urban spaces of Haiti where I could almost smell and taste the griyo & pikliz, see the stunning mountainous terrain and feel the cooling Caribbean waters on a hot day. Danticat unflinchingly writes about Haiti’s complicated revolutionary history and often gives a voice to those Haitians for whom silence is no longer a feasible option. Danticat described her home as best she could, trying to prepare me for all the beauty I would see, but as masterful of a storyteller as she is, I was quite simply unprepared for a country that is beautiful beyond belief – although it isn’t supposed to be.
After the 2010 earthquake and years of social and political unrest, Haiti remains a resilient nation, fixated on a brighter future. I saw the best example of this in the country’s child welfare system reform. Through strong public-private partnerships, Haiti is showing its commitment to a prosperous future by protecting and ensuring the development of its most valuable resource – its children. I saw this in the work of the dedicated staff of IBESR – Haiti’s Institute of Social Welfare and Research, which among other reforms, is leading the way to ensure that fraud is eradicated from its international adoption program to make sure that only children legally eligible to be adopted are authorized for adoption and strengthen their capacity in the full continuum of care for children.
I witnessed how devoted the Haitian National Police’s Brigade for the Protection of Minors are to devising and implementing systems to stamp out child abuse, neglect and trafficking, in partnership with organizations like the Restavek Freedom Foundation.
And while government agencies like these are working to lead the way in child welfare reform in Haiti, they are not alone, as I saw many private organizations that were not just treating the symptoms of a damaged child welfare system, but are aggressively seeking to identify the root causes and cure the problem. As we visited organizations like Papillon Enterprises and Peacycle, I learned that extreme poverty is what often tears families apart and places children in orphanages, because there is simply not enough money to care for the children. So private organizations have stepped to the forefront to provide job training and creation, in order for parents to have a sustainable income so that families can stay together or be reunified. Words cannot explain how heartwarming it was to hear from families that were once split up due to a lack of money, now back together because the parents accessed assistance and a stable income. The best place for children to thrive is in their families, and that is why its laudable that efforts are now beginning to remove barriers that keep children from their families in Haiti.
In circumstances where there is not a viable option to keep or return children to their families, Haitians are also now beginning to implement a foster care model. While our U.S. foster care system is not without its shortcomings, the science is clear that children cognitively develop faster and are without less severe health issues in family settings than children in congregate care – e.g., orphanages and group homes. While foster care in Haiti is still in its infancy, it is programs like CCAI’s 20/20 Vision Program and this congressional delegation to Haiti that are so critical, because through information sharing, technical assistance from experts in the field, and strategic partnerships, Haiti has the opportunity to create and implement an excellent child welfare system.
Jelani Freeman serves on CCAI’s Advisory Council, is a dedicated alumni of CCAI’s Foster Youth Internship Program®, and Serves on the Board of the Barker Adoption Foundation.