Friday, February 5, 2010

Haiti, good intentions, and the road to hell

Like much of the country, I've been reading about the American missionaries arrested for their attempt to move 33 Haitian children into the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Charges of child abduction and criminal association were filed Thursday and were less serious than the charges that many Haitians have demanded: kidnapping and child trafficking. Many have had it with the unfortunately common problem of child enslavement in Haiti and want the government to use this case to make a stand on the issue.

According to relatives and friends of Laura Silsby, one of the charged, she was not intending to sell the children. Rather, she had hoped to open an orphanage in the Dominican Republic for up to 200 children, at least some of whom would have been placed for adoption. As The Wall Street Journal reported, "For Ms. Silsby it was the latest in a series of wrong turns on a road her parents and others who know her in Idaho say was paved with the best intentions."

It irked me as a kid when my mother would say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It spoiled the endorphin rush I got from planning grand, good things.

Later, as I got more theologically sophisticated and evaluated the statement from a faith-not-works Protestant perspective, I decided it was nonsense, since our going to heaven or hell is supposed to be determined by the condition of our heart, not anything we do.

I am afraid that the 10 missionaries share that faith-not-works perspective, because they clearly did not evaluate the consequences of their actions. I'm not talking here about the harm they've done to themselves; I'm talking about their inability to see a better alternative for these children because they were so caught up in the good feelings they got from their good intentions.

What has come to surface in this case is that many, if not all, of the children that the missionaries were trying to help have families. Silsby told her mother that parents signed over the children to her because they could not afford to care for them.

I don't want these children to starve to death, either. But there is a much cheaper way of saving children's lives than sending them to America for adoption: give their families money.

I used to work for an international development organization and "Homes, not orphanages," could have been one of our mantras. A home, in this case, almost always meant living with relatives or family friends in the child's community of origin. The job of international aid organizations is to help those caring adults raise the children - not to pay caring adults in an orphanage or find caring adults in some other country to do that work. For one, it's cheaper, so you can help more children. For another, it fosters stability in the child's life.

There are certainly cases where community support may not be viable - when a child's entire family or community has been killed in war or by disaster, when parents or guardians are abusive, or when a child has been exiled from a community because she is suspected of witchcraft, to name a few examples. But the overwhelming reason that children are placed in orphanages in developing countries is poverty.

To the well-intentioned missionaries, I say that taking children from their homes is not the proper response to an emergency. The proper response is to address the emergency.

Two months ago, The New York Times ran a story about a new effort in Malawi to keep orphans with their extended families by providing their caretakers with money to pay for each child's needs. The program can support 24 children for $1,500 a year; that's what it costs Malawi's Home of Hope orphanage, from which Madonna adopted a son, to care for just one child.

I am not against international adoption. As in the United States, parents everywhere should have the option of placing their children with adoptive homes if they feel incapable of raising their children. But they should not feel forced by circumstances to make this decision, and they should have the option of an open adoption process.

As I follow the trial of the ten missionaries, I'll be hoping that they and all who sympathize with them dwell on that old saying about the road to hell.

Or maybe, if it doesn't jive with their faith-not-works theology, they can think about it this way: "Don't automatically go with every heart-warming impulse. Think thoroughly about what the consequences of your actions might be. Reason must be the partner of compassion."