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Child Trafficking and Adoption in Haiti


UNICEF estimates that approximately 300,000 Haitian children are restavèk (child slaves) and that 3,000 children are trafficked out of Haiti each year.  However, these figures are widely considered conservative both because there are no serious studies to date on this subject and because the very definitional basis of trafficking needs to be rigorously redefined in order to more precisely represent the reality of children whose lives are bartered, traded and sold under the guise of various legal and illegal institutions.

Before the earthquake of 2010, UNICEF estimates that 400,000 children (approximately one of ten children) were living in an orphanage.  While most of these children were not orphans (ie.  the word “orphan” in Haiti is mostly a misnomer as most children in these places are abandoned), many were abandoned by their families in the desire to have their child raised outside of extreme poverty, often with the hopes of their child being adopted and raised in a rich Western nation.  This attitude is not uncommon in Haiti and there is an increase, not a decrease, in the number of children being dropped off at orphanages, children’s hospitals, and churches as this comportment has become a social trend amongst this country’s most disenfranchised.  Tangentially, there is a grey space surrounding inter-country adoption which avoids addressing the necessary moral dilemma of creating economic enterprises wholly based upon an ethos of “adopting out of poverty” and likewise which does not confront the problematic relationship between the comparatively wealthy, first-world adopting parent and the poor Haitian family unable to afford their child.  Currently, such discussions are not being addressed by either international legal bodies or specialists in the area of international adoption.

Haiti approves approximately 1,500 adoptions per year and many of these adoptions take place through American and Canadian adoption agencies which charge fees beginning at $30,000 USD.  Likewise, there are local Haitian adoption agencies which require adoptive parents to support their child while awaiting the completion of the adoption process (often $200 USD per month in a country where most people live on less than $1 per day) with the total fees often amounting to $25,000 USD.  Such fees are estimated to bring in $20 million each year calling into question both the ethics of buying human life as well as the parallel polemics of “conflict of interest” as most every agency works with specific lawyers, notaries, social workers and other facilitators whom are all paid through the adoption agency.  As such, there is no external control of these adoptions and the organization which ostensibly oversees all orphanages and adoptions within Haiti, the IBESR (Institut du Bien Etre Social et de Recherches), has reported to have absolutely no idea as to how many “orphanages” there are in the country.  With such a lack of knowledge of and control over these orphanages, it is understandable how corruption and private financing leads to a blurring of the lines between economic assistance and purchase.

Correlatively, there is a slippage of the term “orphan” which lends a certain authenticity to the situation of the human life represented: “orphan” connotes a credibility of need due to the absence of parents.  By employing the term “abandoned child” or “center for abandoned children” the myth of the Haitian orphan would not only be dispelled, but the employment of a language that more accurately describes the current social reality for many Haitian children would function to inform the international community of the social conditions behind all these Haitian children that are today largely believed to be orphans.  Hence, it is essential to understand both Americans’ and Haitians’ notions of the “orphan”, the “orphanage” and the “abandoned child.”

Over the past three decades there has been a deepening social crisis in Haiti regarding the co-optation of children for various exchanges, specifically that of adoption and restavèk.  Though adoption and child slavery might seem like diametrically opposed cultural practices, they often operate in tandem with one legitimating the practice of the other (ie.  adoptions are legitimated because some perceive them as saving a child from slavery) or one covering up the other (ie.  adoptions are often exchanges of children for the sole purpose of child sexual exploitation and/or child labor).  What is also important to understand the relational dynamics between these two practices is how the seemingly innocuous practice of international adoption has fed a larger system of economic exchange between richer Western subjects and poor Haitians whereby the material exchanged is a human life, regardless of the underlying emotional and moral issues buttressing contemporary practices of adoption.

More directly, there is a clear analogous correspondence between the surrender of one’s child to another (albeit richer) Haitian in the more traditional system of child slavery, restavèk, and the contemporary measures of international adoption which actually do replicate this same social and economic ethos: that of saving the child from an uncertain future, resuscitating the child’s life through a now foreign other.  While it might be uncomfortable to examine these stark similarities, it cannot be overstated that any study of child trafficking in Haiti would be remiss for not examining the social parallels present between a parent seeking the economic “salvation” of a child through restavèk and through international adoption.

Similarly, the relationship between various traditions (sic institutions) which “take over” parenthood due to economic poverty and the creation of “surplus value” based on the economic exchange of human life must be examined in relationship to child trafficking.  This surplus value, while it is often measured in monetary terms (ie.  high adoption fees which are legitimated by claiming to include psychological evaluations, home studies, legal and transport fees), cannot only be exacted economically as there is also the symbolic value that is attached to adopting a child and giving up a child for adoption in Haiti and in the United States.  For instance, many Haitians who voluntarily give up their children believe that their children will necessarily return to them at the age of eighteen.  These parents simply do not regard their giving up their child for adoption as a permanent status, but instead, many regard this practice as a “prêt”, a loan.

There is in the minds of a great number of Haitians who abandon their children to allow them to be adopted a firm belief that their child will become economically enriched and one day return to help out the originating family that made their ultimate sacrifice.  Equally, there is often the attitude among Westerners adopting children out of poverty that theirs is an act of selflessness and there is a conscious elision of this posture within the bodies of jurisprudence and social psychology which directly effect adoptions.  There is a comprehensible need to address directly the larger moral quagmire created by a cultural practice which makes acceptable an ethos of adopting children out of “pity” or “benevolence,” rather than out of love.

Contiguous to this question is how the larger developmental politics of international aid by foreign governments and NGOs, together with the widespread and growing practice of international adoption and sponsorship, lends to an unhealthy relationship of economic and psychological dependence on a macro-political and social level and likewise on the micro-political scale of the parent who often believes that it is the role of these outside bodies to help them raise their children.  By creating a market of adoption in such a milieu of international aid and charity, it is not difficult to comprehend how this structure aliments the widespread attitudes held by Haitians that foreigners are better equipped (sic economically) to raise their child.  There is a tautological relationship thus created between these two structures: on the one hand, the “need” or desire for children by Western families feeds the “voluntary” abandonment and illegal co-optations of children in Haiti in the well understood relationship of supply and demand; on the other, Western subjects are fed images of starving, neglected and “orphaned” children and consequently the Western subject creates economic ties of symbolic parenthood through “sponsorship” (thus receiving their annual hand-drawn sketches to hang on their refrigerator) and often undertakes the expensive process of international adoption under full approval of the Hague Convention and national adoption laws.

This entire scene of the able Westerner who can sponsor and/or adopt a Haitian child takes place within the theatre of commonly accepted social and institutional “norms” that simply does not question the ethics intrinsic to these acts of “charity” and exchange and which likewise turn a blind eye to the reciprocal relationship that such attitudes and practices might impose upon the society which “willingly” gives up its children.  Hence the relationship of charity to international adoption functions very much as a social and economic surrogate of the parent in the absence of a national state mandate and social assistance.  Poverty thus becomes doubly exploited through the exchange of the child through both legal and illegal structures: first, at its origins within the social reality of the poor family and secondly, on the symbolic and transnational level of adoption where the richer family is paradoxically “awarded” a child by the mere relational value of wealth and circumstance.  Tangentially, parenthood is perilously becoming an institution that no longer is related to the somatic, the social structure of family, or emotions of love; now, parenthood is becoming a transnational fabrication being decided by default where economic wealth determines rights to parenthood and the paradoxical basis for such constructions are perverted as much by the Western constructions of entitlement as the Haitian attitudes towards wealth.

Biopolitics is a central facet of international adoption which is implicitly present within the search of Western subjects who adopt children outside of their own national territory.  Since the 1980s, sex education, birth control and access to abortion have reduced the rate of unwanted births in the West resulting in fewer babies to adopt domestically.  There are even countries such as Italy and Canada for whom immigration is vital to these countries’ economic stability due to the otherwise dwindling population; thus adoption is not only needed, it is often facilitated by the state.  Likewise the notion of family has also changed such that today same-sex couples and single adults are turning to adoption, not to mention the problems of fertility facing richer nations.  The response to the problems of reproduction, the decrease of available children to adopt domestically and the concomitant measures taken by governments to encourage transnational adoption has resulted in a bio-political project in the West which creates and institutionalizes orphanages in developing countries and directs the global flows of children from the developing world to Western shores.  I am extending the theoretical concept of biopolitics to the actions and policies of orphanages in Haiti and international adoption institutions within the West.  According to Giorgio Agamben (1998) and Michel Foucault (1997) control over life is the core of biopolitics.

While Foucault focuses on the state’s concern with the biological surveillance and control over populations (ie.  disease control, sanitation, education), Agamben modifies this notion of biopower, slightly expanding Foucault’s definition to include the control of populations through what Agamben calls “bare life.” Borrowing from Aristotle, Agamben characterizes biopower as law which maintains the power to define the simple fact of living, “bare life” (zoē), of its citizens.  Agamben demonstrates how this simple fact of living is actually excluded from law since the end of political discourse is not “bare life.” Opposing “bare life” to “politically qualified life” (bios) Agamben maintains that “qualified life” is the focus of the modern state in its drive to create competing articulations of “life according to the good.” In this way, Agamben proposes that “bare life” is a simple, unqualified fact of living included within the discourse of politics through its very exclusion.  Demonstrating that the power of law is to actively separate political beings (citizens) from “bare life” (bodies), Agamben maintains that there is an inclusive exclusion at the level of life itself which is often called into action during a “state of exception”.  Thus the subject of “bare life” remains conterminously absorbed by the law and yet rests outside it since the ultimate goal of the state is ultimately to transform “bare life” into “good life”.  In this way, law creates a field of inclusive exclusion which allows for certain humans to be treated differently–even as non-humans–in their exclusion, while their inclusion is implicated through their transformation from “bare life” to “political subject”.

Taking this concept of biopower from Agamben and applying it to the paradigm of legalized adoptions, we could read the political being (the citizen) as the adopting Western subject for whom jurisprudence demands that the subject obey certain laws regarding domestic adoption.  But, shift the scene of adoption away from the domestic space of legality and social scrutiny and another order is revealed: the third world child who is rendered “bare life”.  International adoption is the state of exception and the law creates an exceptional case for this form of adoption: the adopted body is separated from the domestic social order, certain laws are suspended and other rewritten on an exceptional international order, and the “bare life” of this child is co-opted through legal discourse set upon an international theatre of bringing this “bare life” into the “good life”.

Though the “bare life” of the abandoned child falls outside the official political discourse of transnational adoption, its “bare life” is nonetheless implicit through its exclusion in law.  The very exclusion in legal discourses of the child adopted from the developing world hinges upon the delegitimization this “bare life” in its geo-political space, the confused and disordered third-world.  It is then that the law recuperates and fully legitimizes this life through her eventual adoption into the first world.  The “bare life” is rendered legitimate as “good life” only at the point of its inclusion as a political being–its body and the body of her family excised from the scene of legal discourse.  These “bare life” subjects simply do not exist as subjects within the law and as such the “bare life” of the child hinges upon the transformative power that the combined forces of professed wealth, democracy and social order abroad offer her as she is ushered into the “good life” of the Western family.  The biopolitics of international adoption can therefore be seen as managing crisis and combating poverty while conterminously promoting humanitarianism through which the “bare life” of the child is pushed into the past (along with that of her poor family) in order to embrace the “good life” she is afforded in the future.

The very nature of international adoption implicitly engages the ethos of biopolitics—namely the appropriation of human life from one nation to another through the formalized implementation of legal discourse which simply converts the practice of somatic appropriation and importation into law.  The legal discourse which renders legitimate the attainment of the “good life” is buttressed by the various cultural practices which couch international adoption as “good will”, such as those private and public foundations that claim to “save” children through adoption and monetary, long-distance sponsorship and as well the media which pushes images of the third-world other as a subject entirely incapable of caring for herself.  The neo-colonial implications of biopolitics are unavoidable and the attitudes both in Haiti and in the West are reflective of these constructed relationships which portend to save or to be saved.  The biopolitics of family creation through adoption are rarely discussed amongst legal and psychological experts in the fields of adoption and social welfare and the dangerous underbelly of adoption biopolitics is implicit throughout Haiti’s growing number of orphanages.

One can simply not examine the practices of child trafficking without conterminously studying the very cultural and legal institutions which serve as the paradigmatic basis behind the illegal act of trafficking (ie.  that the child will have a better life, that he will be fed and clothed, that she will receive an education).  Likewise, one cannot study child trafficking without examining the residual effects of legalized practices such as international adoption whose fees reify these children in creating jobs and institutions based on the appropriation of human life.  When discussing child trafficking, it is imperative that the legal aspects are scrutinized as much as the overtly illegal activities in order to fully understand what might actually be a similarity in spirit amongst all these licit and illicit operations of child exchange.

One cultural aspect that must be directly addressed is how there is often present—even within the overtly illegal activities of child trafficking—a moral imperative of helping children to attain the “good life.” The mother who abandons her child at the church, the father who sells his son to the orphanage, the parents who send their daughter to the country as restavèk, the adoption agency which organizes adoptions in Haiti, and those who traffic restavèk to the countryside all believe on some level–just like the lawyer in Toronto who adopted her child from Haiti–that they are helping these children escape a life of poverty.  In short, the biopolitics of legal adoption should necessarily be as central to any discussion of child trafficking as the more overtly illegal practices of human trafficking and restavèk simply because what drives, in part, the illegal trafficking of children and the continued practice of restavèk is the combined and complementary forces of two types of exchange value of human life: monetary value which deems the child exchangeable at a specific price and ethical value which posits subjectivity through the transformative power of the subject from “bare life” to “good life.” In the end, it must be asked if there is a cultural belief being created from all sides of these exchanges of human life, as indicated from current reports, that the ends justify the means in this collective aspiration for granting children a “good life.”

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at:


Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at:

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