AMALIA FAWCETT - The Sydney Morning Herald (AU)
January 21, 2010
The horrific situation for Haitian children in the aftermath of the earthquake raises the difficult question of what can be done to make sure they are safe and secure.
Often the easiest solution can be the least appropriate. Even in the hectic environment of emergency response, aid agencies need to ensure that their actions concentrate on the long-term wellbeing of children, rather than looking for a quick fix.
In a country such as Haiti, where 46 per cent of the population is under the age of 18, the way we support their recovery will have ramifications for the nation's future.
When I've come back from previous deployments in my role looking after children in emergencies, I have been asked why we don't just get children out of the disaster zone and into a country that has the resources to look after them.
When we are confronted by images of death and destruction, this is tempting, but when I talk to disaster-affected communities about how they support their children, it is quickly exposed as the least-appropriate solution.
Based on a wealth of international knowledge about child development and resilience during disasters, we know that children best recover from shock, stress and grief when they are in familiar surroundings and with loved ones. Even during emergencies, a child's right to be cared for in a family unit of some form, and a family's right to look after their children, must be preserved.
Yesterday, I spoke to my colleague Dr Unni Krishnan in Haiti about the disaster's impact on children and he made this point very clear. He was emphatic that removing children from their families and natural environment was harmful and suggested that the international community needed to work to improve the children's environment, living conditions and future.
Families will often naturally prioritise the needs of their children and instinctively respond to their emotional needs in times of crisis.
In 2007, I was in the Solomon Islands as part of the emergency response to the earthquake and tsunami that had hit the country. I spent time with a community that had made a game out of teaching children what to do if another earthquake hit. The smiles belied the serious messages and at first glance glossed over the very real benefit of providing tools for children to process their fears and cope with their uncertainty.
When strengths such as these are present in a community, agencies need to build on them to support children, not ignore them. This home-grown solution led to these children being more confident to take some time to relax and be kids - which is essential for long-term emotional recovery.
Even in a disaster, most children will have extended families willing and able to care for them. Long-term care arrangements outside the family or community should therefore not be made during a disaster, and reunification attempts must continue for a significant period of time. This may not be simple to achieve, but putting children at the centre of the earthquake response is crucial.
When children have been separated from their families, local solutions are still often the best solutions. Children who are found to be without any family should have care arrangements that are culturally appropriate.
Many cultures have systems of customary fostering or adoption that allow children to remain within their own community. Well-meaning offers to adopt or foster children in other countries ignore the emotional impact of surviving a disaster and grieving for loved ones, only to be plucked from all you know to start a new life in a new place.
Experience has taught us that the knee-jerk reaction of removing children from the area or country affected by a disaster often means they are less likely to be reunited with families searching for them back at home.
Children can be resilient when given the right support, and in Haiti, where repeated disasters have pushed resilience to the limit, efforts to ensure that their wellbeing is safeguarded must be amplified. The ideal situation is in a family unit, or something similar.
Obviously, when communities are overwhelmed by a disaster, additional support is needed. But where possible, this should avoid the use of institutions, which not only remove children from their local environments, but also potentially expose them to new dangers. Sadly, abuse is prevalent in many institutions, and one-on-one emotional and developmental stimulation, so important for a child's healthy development, is often lacking, especially in countries with limited resources.
As aid begins to get through to those who most need it, we must also look for durable and appropriate solutions for unaccompanied and separated children. We must ensure that our actions are in the best interests of the children, not a just a quick fix.
If we fail to support communities to look after their children, then we become part of the disaster, rather than part of the recovery.
Amalia Fawcett is a specialist in child protection in emergencies with Plan International Australia.
See also the Al Jazera's report at this link.
"The plight of orphaned children in earthquake-hit Haiti has led to calls for international adoption processes to be speeded up. But it has also raised the question of whether taking children away from their homeland, even in extreme or impoverished conditions, is the right solution."
Roelie Post, of Against Child Trafficking, an NGO based in Brussels opposed to international adoption
said a report by Unicef in 2005 found the Haitian adoption system to be "untransparent". "The issue at stake is that Haiti has for a long time been known as a country with not a good adoption procedure," Post said.
"Traumatised children need familiarity and consistency. And if you pluck them out of all that's familiar to them ... then it's not an improvement to their psyche"
"Orphanages are clearing houses in Haiti. As soon as the children enter the home, they are signed up to an international adoption agency. This means that the parents, if they are alive and they want them back, cannot get them back."
Post said there was a different understanding in Haiti of what adoption really means.
"In the Western world you get a new birth certificate, with the names of the adoptive parents. There's no legal link with the [biological] family," she said.
"The system in Haiti is more like foster care and the family link remains. And the people in Haiti in do not know what international adoption really means."
Parents believe they will still be able to be reunited with their children, Post said.