PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — When Clerice Chery put her three youngest children up for adoption, she prayed that she would see them again.
She did not want to part with her babies, but after her husband died, she says she couldn’t provide for them in addition to her other five children. And she wanted them to have a better life.
Chery says representatives from a local orphanage in the Delmas suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, promised her that her children would get an education and that she would be able to stay in contact with them.
So, she let them go.
But more than 20 years later, she hadn’t heard from any of them.
“I went to pray in churches everywhere,” she says. “I asked God to give me a chance to see at least one of my kids given up for adoption again.”
Then, one day, her cousin was listening to Michel Joseph, a journalist at the Radio Télévision Caraïbes, a popular local broadcasting group. That’s when everything changed.
Joseph was interviewing a woman on his show named Myrlande Lévesque.
She was one of Chery’s daughters, now 24 years old, who had been put up for adoption all those years ago.
The subject of the interview was an answer to Chery’s prayers — her daughter was looking for her.
She quickly gathered the documents she had saved from the adoption and went to the radio station in hopes of meeting her daughter.
Over the last three years, Joseph says he has helped more than a dozen adopted children in Haiti connect with their birth parents through his radio show.
Joseph, who has worked as a reporter and news presenter at the station for seven years, doesn’t advertise his work reconnecting families. But through word of mouth over the years, more and more people began sending him messages on WhatsApp, or even showing up at the station with birth certificates and a story.
“Radio Caraïbes reaches a very wide audience across Haiti,” he says. “Messages are quickly spread, even when they fall on ears of those who’re not concerned, there’s still someone who listens to them, and quickly passes them on to others.”
Joseph says he had to create a more formal process to handle all of the requests he receives. Each person, usually a young person who was adopted by a family overseas, completes a questionnaire that includes their place of residence, names of parents, photos of parents and other relevant documents. The information serves as the foundation of his research and reporting on each case.
Once stories air, Joseph says parents call him and often show up at the studio with documents and ID cards showing a relationship with the child. Some even bring photographs.
“People always show up at the radio station within 24 or 48 hours in possession of documents and other papers that can show me that they’re the true parent,” he says.
That’s just what Chery did that day.
She was in luck. She met Lévesque, who was adopted at age two by a Canadian family. She learned that her daughter had lived a good life and that her adopted family was loving.
Like many children adopted overseas, Lévesque said she did the interview because she was searching for her identity.
For years, Haiti permitted international adoption through a process of simple adoption. That process gives adoptive parents responsibility for the child, but permits legal bonds between the adopted child and birth family to remain. Many children retained their given names as a result, which has aided Joseph in his work.
But a devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 ushered in a wave of adoption reforms.
Hundreds of thousands of children became homeless in the wake of the earthquake. Reeling from the impact, adoption regulations were lifted in the aftermath and more than 2,000 children were adopted out of the country, many without proper processing or paperwork.
In 2012, Haiti’s child welfare department, the Institute of Social Well-Being and Research (IBESR) temporarily shut down international adoptions while authorities figured out a path forward. A new adoption law was unveiled in 2013 with parameters for oversight and provisions for international adoptions. By April 2014, the Hague Convention adoption principles, an international agreement surrounding intercountry adoptions introduced globally in 1993, became active in Haiti.
The Hague Convention guidelines say to vet prospective parents by conducting background checks and reviewing financial records. Haiti requires at least one of the adoptive parents to be at least 30 years old. Single women can adopt if they are over 35. Haiti does not permit same-sex couples to adopt regardless of relationship status.
“Before 2013, Haiti could record more than 2,000 adoptions annually,” says Newton Saint Juste, an attorney at law at the Port-au-Prince bar association. “Today, the process is more rigorous, and has resulted in adoptions dipping to 400 annually.”
While fewer children are now being adopted internationally, an estimated 30,000 children still live in orphanages in Haiti, according to Lumos, an NGO founded by author J.K. Rowling that aims to end institutionalization of children. An estimated 80% of them have at least one living parent and most have other family members in Haiti.
In Haiti, many of these children are put up for adoption because families are unable to care for them. Based on a household survey conducted in 2012, the most recent available, more than 6 million Haitians live below the poverty line and 2.5 million fall below the extreme poverty line, making less than $1.23 per day.
Even with the new regulations and many children still living in orphanages here, Joseph says the topic isn’t openly discussed.
“Adoption remains a bit of a taboo subject in Haiti because most children are given up for adoption so that they can have a better life,” says Joseph.
But the desire to know birth parents is natural, says Ronald Jean Jacques, a psychologist and professor at the Université d’État d’Haïti, a public university.
“It’s a very, very natural thing that adopted children feel the desire to find their birth parents, because they need to make their feeling of emptiness go away,” he says.
That’s what makes Joseph’s new reporting specialty so important.
“We see him show a great deal of energy, passion and patience, flinging himself into this outstanding work,” says Davidson Saint Fort, who has worked at Radio Télévision Caraïbes for three years. “All this has us all trying a little bit harder to take on this form of journalism contributing something of value to society.”
Régine Deslauriers, an accountant and executive at Haiti’s education ministry, says Joseph’s show helped to reconnect her with her siblings.
“His work filled my heart with unexpected joy,” she says.
Chery and her daughter agree.
Though they still have a language barrier between them, as Lévesque doesn’t speak Creole, she says she looks forward to learning so she can continue to build a relationship with her mom.
“My empty feelings have given way to the feeling of completeness today,” she says. “Through [Joseph], I’ve been able to see my mom again.”
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.