Catholic Agencies Call for Haitian Child Protection

Aim to Prevent Trafficking of Quake Victims

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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 8, 2010 ( Several Catholic agencies joined to write a letter appealing for child protection programs to be put into place to keep unaccompanied minors in Haiti from falling victim to human traffickers.

The letter, publicized Friday by the U.S. bishops’ conference, suggested several action points to help orphaned or unaccompanied children in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

It was sent to the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius.

«The compassion of the American people has been evident in their response to Haitian children who have been left alone after the earthquake, including the many offers to adopt children who might have lost their parents in the tragedy,» the letter acknowledged.

It was signed by Ambassador Johnny Young, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ conference Migration and Refugee Services, Maria Odom, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities, Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, and Johan Ketelers, secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission.

These executives stated, «As social service providers with experience in handling unaccompanied children, we believe that certain processes should be established before such children are brought to the United States and placed in any legal adoption proceedings.»

They underlined the «dire need of special assistance or protection» for these children.

«We are heartened to learn that the U.S. government, in cooperation with the United Nations and the government of Haiti, has taken steps to protect Haitian unaccompanied children within Haiti and to locate parents or family members,» the agency leaders noted.

They outlined several other suggestions in the care for these children, including the establishment of safe havens for them within Haiti where they can receive care.

High priority

«Such arrangements for the security and material support of these children, who might otherwise be subject to kidnapping and human trafficking, should be the highest priority, and will permit the appropriate screening processes to proceed without delay,» the letter stated.

It called for the assignment of child welfare experts to make «best interest determinations for each child,» to analyze the specific needs and recommend long-term placement options.

The Catholic leaders underlined the need for family tracing to try to find living relatives and facilitate reunification if possible.

«Family reunification is an important goal and must be protected to the greatest extent possible, while placement with a guardian within Haiti will sometimes prove to be the appropriate course,» they affirmed.

The letter called for the placement of children in foster homes for care prior to family reunification or possible adoption.

In this way, it added, they «would be able to receive benefits and services tailored to their specific needs and would be under the care of families, in the foster-care context, who have been carefully screened by the U.S. government and child welfare experts.»

For those children who have parents or family living in the United States, the executives appealed for expedited immigration processing to help them come into that country.

They noted, «From our experience working with children in disaster-related and other displacement contexts, it is our view that as a general rule it would not be in the best interest of Haiti’s children, or Haiti as a whole, for unaccompanied children to be evacuated from their home country without a careful, individualized assessment of what is best for each of them.»

The agency leaders expressed the desire to continue working with the U.S. authorities «to ensure that these vulnerable children, as well as other victims of the earthquake, receive the care and support they need to resume their lives.»

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