February 4 2010

Statement: The needs of unaccompanied children in Haiti

04/02/2010 - At least 20 of the 33 children brought to the SOS Children's Village in Santo in Port-au-Prince for temporary alternative care have at least one living parent. While there is not yet confirmation of how many of these children that were to be taken to the Dominican Republic have parents, guardians or family members to care for them, what is clear is that most of the children are not "orphans".

Photo: Georg Willeit
Two of the 33 children who were to be taken out of Haiti - Photo: Georg Willeit
The intentions and motivations of the ten US Americans have not been revealed, and it is the responsibility of the local authorities in Haiti to carry out investigations. Irrespective of the outcomes, some general principles should be respected in emergency situations.

First and foremost, the best place for a child to be cared for and protected is within his or her family. A child’s parents or family members providing care should therefore receive all forms of support to provide the child with security, respect and a stable home.

In Haiti, many families are under extreme distress. Even before the earthquake, many families were at risk of being separated because of poverty. According to the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, poverty should never justify taking a child away from his or her family. Instead, it should be seen as a signal for the need to support this family.

The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children outline that in emergency situations, such as the earthquake in Haiti, identification of the child and reunification of the child with their siblings, parents and family members is the priority. The local authorities, UN agencies and others are working together to register and trace all unaccompanied and separated children. No action should be taken by any group or individual that may hinder eventual family reintegration, such as adoption, change of name, or movement to places far from the family’s likely location, until all tracing efforts have been exhausted.

It will take many weeks and months before we can know how many children in Haiti were separated from their families. In the meantime, no child should be regarded as an “orphan” until this can be confirmed by the local authorities. Unaccompanied and separated children must be viewed in the context of the brothers and sisters they may have, the parents and family members they come from, the community and nation that they have a stake in the future of. SOS Children's Villages therefore cautions all organisations working in Haiti against taking premature decisions on permanent care solutions (including adoption) for them.

In this emergency situation, we echo the call of the international community for all governments and organisations to adhere to the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Optional Protocols.

In crisis situations, a parent can be much more likely to give a child away, if they see no future for their children. Access to medical care, food, water, shelter, and other services is even more limited than before. The efforts of the international community to provide relief should not pressure families in poverty to consider separation. Relief organisations in Haiti should therefore focus on preventing separation by ensuring that families have access to basic necessities now, and are active participants in the rebuilding and development of their nation.

The recovery and rebuilding of Haiti will be measured by the strengthening of the poorest and most vulnerable families. The emergency relief programme of SOS Children's Villages in Haiti includes the following actions:

- Relief supplies for children and families (food, medicine, clothing, shelter material etc.)
- Psychosocial support for traumatised children and their families
- Temporary family-based alternative care for unaccompanied and separated children
- Reunification programmes for unaccompanied and separated children
- Help families rebuild their houses and their lives with comprehensive social programmes, including counselling, vocational training, and employment