Haiti 2010 Earthquake Response

New controversy highlights plight of unaccompanied children in disaster

Photo by Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Barker (DVIDSHUB at Flickr)

More controversy regarding U.S. evacuations of Haitian orphans arose today when the New York Times reported that an airlift of 54 children to the U.S. left 12 children – who may not all be orphans – in limbo because they had not been cleared through the process for adoption and transfer from Haiti.

According to the Times, Haiti’s envoy to the United States claims he did not approve removal of children who were “not already in the adoption pipeline,” and details of the removal “remain unclear.”  Those involved are believed to include  Rep. Jason Altmire, Rahm Emanuel, a senior aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, and Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania.  The current plan is for the Red Cross to try to locate any Haitian relatives willing to care for the children.

What has emerged so far suggests that the U.S. has no formal plan or procedure for handling unaccompanied children in disasters, although that is a frequent consequence of disaster, and the perils of failing to provide proper oversight are well known.

In the 1988 book, “Unaccompanied Children:  Care and Protection in Wars, Natural Disasters and Refugee Movements,” Everett Ressler, Neil Boothby and Daniel Steinbock examined nine crises involving unaccompanied children and found that many children were “neglected, abused, abducted or exploited.” The authors concluded, “Even when programs have satisfactorily met some of the needs, there has been little carryover of the lessons learned to subsequent emergencies.”

Against this backdrop, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown today issued an apology for the harm that arose out of a resettlement project that sent roughly 150,000 destitute children to Australia and Canada, ostensibly for a better life.  In the absence of proper oversight, many of the children were subjected to abuse, including brutal beatings and sexual abuse, in foster homes, state-run orphanages and religious institutions.

Baroness Valerie Amos, Britain’s High Commissioner to Australia, said last week, “We want not just to bear witness to the past but to look forward to a future where these terrible events will not be repeated.” (AFP).  The solution to that is the same for all organizations:  preserve lessons learned in a written plan, and make certain that everyone knows the plan.

[For those interested in further study of this issue, Duke University offers an excellent reading list.]

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