Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is leading a bipartisan group of about 40 U.S. lawmakers to push for legislation that would streamline procedures for American families eager to adopt Haitian orphans. But some relief organizations have called for an end to adoptions of Haitian children, saying that in the midst of the chaos there, some children who appear to be orphaned might simply have been separated from their families.
Landrieu told reporters at a news conference that even before Haiti's devastating earthquake, the United Nations said the country had 380,000 orphans. She said 900 of those children were in the process of being adopted by U.S. families when the quake hit. And adoptive parents and orphans often had to wait years for the process to be completed.
Landrieu says that now, there probably are two-to-three times more orphans in Haiti, and that a more efficient adoption system is desperately needed.
"Just like our government is trying to work with the Haitian government to rebuild better, to rebuild stronger buildings, better infrastructure, we want to work on a better child care policy, a better orphan policy than was present before this earthquake," Landrieu said.
Republican Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri agrees that orphaned children in Haiti cannot afford to wait until government offices there are rebuilt and re-staffed.
"It is clear that the relief and rebuild efforts to help our friends in Haiti put the pieces of their lives back together will take years," Bond said. "But the littlest and most vulnerable victims of the tragedy in Haiti are orphan children, and they cannot wait for help."
Landrieu, Bond and several other senators are supporting the Families for Orphans Act, and are trying to get it onto the Senate floor quickly. The bill would establish a separate office in the State Department to handle adoption issues, similar to the office that handles human trafficking.
Some Haitian officials and spokesmen for international relief organizations have expressed concern that Haitian children who are orphaned or separated from their families face a growing threat from child traffickers who might smuggle them into the neighboring Dominican Republic. They also fear that some relief agencies might have flown earthquake orphans out of the country before efforts to find their families have been exhausted.
Groups including Save the Children and World Vision have called for a suspension of new adoptions from Haiti until every child has been given the chance to be reunited with his or her family.
Senator Landrieu and other lawmakers agree that the first priority should be to reunite children with their families in Haiti and those children should be protected from human traffickers.
But Landrieu strongly disagrees with appeals to suspend the adoptions.
"We need to be accelerating the process of child protection and adoption, even if it is temporary, with extraordinary measures, not stopping it," Landrieu said. "And I am going to challenge those organizations every step of the way. This is the time to step up and say, 'I want to adopt.' This is the time to try to save the lives of children."
Landrieu agrees that appropriate legal safeguards should be in place to identify orphans. But she adds that orphans belong in families as soon as possible, not in institutions or left alone on Haiti's devastated streets.