Monday, January 12, 2015

Putting Haitian Families First

At the age of three, I was adopted from Haiti, and I grew up knowing very little about my family and the details surrounding my adoption. I had always been told that my adoption was out of necessity- my parents had been too poor to care for me and my younger siblings, so we were put in an orphanage. I was told they wanted to place me for adoption. Last year I went on a search for my birth family in Haiti, and through the help of several strangers, I was able to find them. But I also found the details surrounding my adoption were very different from what I had been told. My parents did not want to relinquish me for adoption, and for over 30 years, they did not know where I was. Unfortunately, many Haitian adoptees have stories just like mine. Struck by how unbelievable my adoption story was, I started doing some research on adoptions in Haiti.

I found that in Haiti, children are often separated from their families and placed in orphanages in exchange for medical treatment or food. Once children are in the orphanage, adoption is unfairly used as a bargaining tool, and mothers are promised that their child will have a better life or may even come back to support them one day. Children may also be placed for adoption without their family’s knowledge or consent, and once they leave the country, they are often lost to their families forever. Separated by geography and language, an adoptee may never find their way back to their family.

I wondered how I could I make sure another mother would not lose their child to a system that is so quick to offer a permanent solution to a temporary problem. My research led me to Haitian Families First, an organization that focuses on family preservation. According to their website, the organization “runs programs that provide medical, nutritional and educational support to help Haitian families remain together and create a self-sufficient future.” I recently I had the opportunity to interview Ali McMurtrie, one of the founders. Ali shed some light on what makes HFF different from other non-profit organizations in Haiti and how she and her sister are working hard to put families first.

Your sister moved to Haiti in 2002, and then you followed in 2006. When was your first visit to Haiti and why did you choose Haiti?

I first visited in 2003 when I was 15 years old, and that first visit to Haiti changed my life. I knew during my first trip that I wanted to live there one day. Jamie chose Haiti pretty randomly - a friend of a friend knew of a volunteer opportunity there and let Jamie know. She had wanted to volunteer with orphaned children but didn't have many stipulations as to where. When the opportunity came up in Haiti, she took it. I followed along to see what my cool older sister was up to, but quickly fell in love with Haiti myself.

Do you have experience hosting short term missions or humanitarian trips? Do you think missions trips to Haiti (or anywhere) are successful in the long run?

We do not have experience hosting trips. When we used to work in an orphanage we found that, although people who travel on mission or humanitarian trips have the best intentions, it would often disrupt the daily lives and routine of the children. As we now work closely with families in the communities we serve, it is difficult to have mission groups come to volunteer. This is kind of difficult to explain but I will try - what gives Jamie and I the ability to work as closely with the families as we do is that we have invested a ton of time (12 years!) into learning about their culture, their customs, their language, etc. and we have proven that we are going to be there for a long time - as long as our work there is necessary. That sets us apart from a group of people who may come in and try to help for a week or two…then leave. We have found that these trips can definitely be more detrimental to a community than people realize. Having said that, I do believe there are ways to make a trip successful - for example, by partnering with a school or community leader who will help organize a visit to actually meet the needs of the community at that time.

What would you say to families who are interested in adopting from Haiti? Do you have any advice?

(This is a tough question for me, but will do my best!) I would encourage anyone interested in adopting from Haiti to do as much research as they possibly can before getting started.

Our organization prioritizes family preservation because of our years of experience working with children who were living in an orphanage, most of whom were adopted internationally. What we learned was that more than 80% of children living in the close to 800 orphanages in Haiti have a living mother or father. These birth parents almost never give their child up for adoption because they want to, they do it because they feel that they have no other option. So often the orphanages offer things that the parents cannot provide to their own children - food, medicine, schooling - which leads parents to relinquish the rights of their child. The parents are very often told that their child will come back and support their birth family when he or she gets older, or no one explains the finality of the decision that they have made to give up their child forever.

Our model in support of families in Haiti (putting family first) aims to do the following in this order:

1) Whenever possible, keep a child with their biological mother and/or father

2) Support an extended relative to permanently care for the child (we have worked with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents)

3) Identify foster carers in the community the child is from to help care for the child in the short term

4) Work with strong families who are willing and able to adopt a child in need from their own community

5) When there is no other option in the community, identify an international adoption plan for the child

It is the adoptive parents job to research the orphanage they are adopting from and the agency they work with to try to determine whether the family of the child living in the orphanage knows that their child is being adopted internationally, wants their child to be adopted internationally, and have been offered all other alternative options to giving up their child. I'm sorry to say that many agencies and organizations are saying that they offer options to birth parents as an alternative to giving up their child, but they still have overcrowded orphanages. In our experience this does not make sense -In 2013, HFF worked with 92 families of children who were at high risk of being sent to live in an orphanage. Our programs ensured that 76% of those children remained in their home with one or both biological parents, and 23% were able to remain in the care of extended family members. That means 99% of the children are living with their family instead of living in an orphanage. The 1 child for whom we could not find biological family for was adopted domestically by another mother in our program.

The bottom line is that there may be a need for children to be adopted from Haiti for many more years, but the majority of children being adopted from Haiti now have parents who want to parent them. They just need a little support.

I've read about micro loans, which your organization uses. What are some ways micro loans are used, and on average how long does it take for the recipient to repay?

As a very small organization we use micro loans on a very small scale! We have helped to set up several of the mothers in HFF programs with a small business. This can be as simple as providing them with money up front to purchase items which will then be sold in the marketplace (bottled beverages, food supplies, cosmetic items, etc.) or helping them obtain those items to sell. Once she is able to begin selling items and saving money, she begins to pay back the loan - the length of time varies greatly and depends on the particular situation and needs of the individual receiving the loan.

Where do you call home today? 

I actually live in Pittsburgh now! I moved back to Pittsburgh to work full time on fundraising and organizational growth. It was a very difficult transition for me after living in Haiti for nearly 7 years, but I knew it was necessary to keep HFF running! Jamie still lives in Haiti full time, and we have always remained committed to working in Haiti as long as the work we do there is necessary. We hope that in our lifetime there will not be a need for orphanages anymore, that there will be services in each community that provide options for parents and relatives of at risk children so that the family does not have to be torn apart.

You witness so many lives being changed. What was a recent experience you had that encouraged or inspired you?

I do still get to travel to Haiti every few months, and that gives me a different perspective on the amazing impact of the work we are doing. I am blown away by many of the students we are supporting in school this year who came into our programs as newborns! Rose Naicha came into the HFF program at a month old because her mother passed away due to complications after her birth. Her young father did not feel that he could handle raising Rose on his own, but HFF provided powdered formula for Rose's first year, and help with medical care on an ongoing basis, and Rose just began first year kindergarten in Haiti!

I am truly inspired by each parent we work with who makes the decision to seek a better life for their child. For so many of the parents we work with the odds are against them - they have trouble finding or keeping a job, schools are becoming more expensive in Haiti, food prices are high - but they are willing to do anything, whatever it takes, to give their child the best life they can. We are proud to offer a hand up, not a hand out, to families who seek our services, to help empower each individual to reach a point where they don’t need our help anymore. When HFF can be a part of that, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

What are some ways we can partner with your organization? 

We are constantly seeking support to help care for the 100 families in our programs, and every bit counts. It is really exciting to have the chance to share some of our knowledge on this forum because spreading awareness is the most important thing for us right now. Please learn more about HFF on our website, ( and on Facebook (Official Haitian Families First) and Twitter (@HaitianFam1st). If you think there is someone who can benefit from learning about our work in Haiti, please do not hesitate to tell them about us.

Mariette Williams (@mariettewrites) is a transracial adoptee born in Jeremie, Haiti. She was adopted at the age of three and grew up near Vancouver, B.C., Canada. She founded Haitian Adoptees, a Facebook group that serves to connect and offer support to other Haitian adoptees. In July of 2015, she reunited with her birth mother and several members of her birth family. She lives in South Florida with her husband and two children. In addition to being a Journalism and literature teacher, she writes essays, short stories, and poems that usually focus on adoption.