Foreign Policy Blogs

“We’re All the Same Color!” : The Politics of “Colorblind” International Adoption

Kids at the Croix-des-Bouquets orphanage. Photo by Allyn Gaestel.

Following the questions of one Haitian-born, Canadian-raised woman, Adopted ID raises questions of identity, and the politics of international adoption.

To a lively soundtrack, which carries the film when the visuals blur, the documentary follows the emotional journey of Judith Craig Morency on her first trip back to Haiti after 27 years raised in a white Canadian family.

I saw the film at the Black Star Film Festival in Philadelphia last weekend and met the dynamic film maker, Sophia Godding Tobogo.

Judith doesn’t speak Kreyol, and knows only that she was found in a ditch and taken to a hospital when she was a few days old. Her adopted father is a Canadian minister, but she knows nothing of the birth family that she seeks.

Her story, rife with holes, is typical of international adoptees.

Most children adopted internationally do not live our stereotypical, imagined orphan tale: with deceased parents, children find their way to a dismal orphanage, to be saved by a kind hearted stranger.

It’s important to know: most children in Haitian orphanages DO have families.

There are between 600 and 1,000 “residential care centers” for children in Haiti, UNICEF  estimated in 2011. Christina Torsein, a child protection specialist at MINUSTAH, the U.N. mission in Haiti, admitted in an interview then that they had only a “hodge podge” of statistics, no accurate overarching picture.

“Unicef doesn’t use the word ‘orphanages’ in English or French because that denotes the child not having parents,” Torsein told me. In reality many of the children in Haitian orphanages are not orphans at all, or perhaps they are orphans of poverty.

Many parents take their children to orphanages, drop them off, and hope that there they will find food and education, basic necessities out of reach for many families.  The children know this well and elucidate eloquently on their situations.

Jean Ricky Stefan, at fourteen was living in an orphanage in Croix de Bouquets.  He has two little brothers and a sister who still live with his single mom.  “When I started to advance in my studies my mom couldn’t pay for everything—the books, the materials, the school fees—so she brought me here so I can study.”

His mom comes to visit every week.

Stefan, a wanna-be rapper, goes by the alias Master G.

“I want to rap in the U.S., I want to work with Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Fat Joe.”

“Oh yeah? Spit something for me!” I told him in the middle of the throng of twenty kids.

Master G looked shy for a moment.

“You can’t be a rapper if you’re afraid to rap!” I told him.

Immediately he broke it down, rapping in fast Kreyol about the struggles of growing up in Haiti, not enough water, not enough food.

Stefan’s home was a dirty crammed house, overflowing with kids.  It smelled like urine, and there were no beds.  There was a 20 by 10 foot concrete space where the kids can play; mostly they danced, it was too cramped for sport.  Children had worms, quash, TB.

The head of Stefan’s orphanage did not intend to adopt out the kids. He saw himself as providing a social service.

But Torsein specified they were not all like that: “there are a number of crèches [orphanages] which exist and their focus is on adoption, so essentially they are industries, they are businesses.”

A New Yorker article by John Seabrook in 2010 explored the heartbreak on the other side of the ocean: families waiting for their adopted children, losing contact after the earthquake.

But the article highlighted the complicated paternalism inherent in international adoption. Seabrook quoted Queen Latifah as saying on the Today show, “I want to just go and get some of them babies. If you got the hookup, please get me a couple of Haitian kids.”

Adopted ID shows some even more cringe-worthy attitudes. When Judith visits an orphanage during her own Haiti pilgrimage, a white family is cuddling with their newly adopted Haitian son. “We’re all the same color!” the teenage sister says, “I’m black on the inside.”

The film just touches on the human rights and business nuances of adoption in Haiti. But it stresses the depth of Judith’s confusion and identity crises, growing up black, Haitian but with siblings that blow off her questions, and parents that seem offended by her desire to reconnect with her roots.

Her focus is on preserving links with adoptees’ cultures, but Tolstein at UNICEF has an even more aggressive suggestion: “Let’s try and get the children who can be with their mummies and daddies back with their parents.”

The problem, she says, is poverty. If Haiti were not seen as a hotbed of poverty that inspires Americans to massage their savior complexes; and if communities and families had resources, Haitian kids could stay home.

 

Author

Allyn Gaestel
Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel

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