The myth of the orphan – from Haiti to Hayward

by Lisa Gray-Garcia, aka Tiny

Orphan: a child deprived by death of one or usually both parents, one deprived of some protection or advantage.

In corners of streets and rooms,
on curbs, alleys, broken beds,
in someone’s ambivalent arms,
always in danger of harm,
never invited, belonging to no one,
language, culture, people stolen,
cared for by default, a price on my head.
I am the orphan,
used, pimped, dismantled,
in the shackles of un-love,
left for dead,
emotionally deconstructed,
always unprotected.

An unwanted child – unprotected, uncared for and, most terrifying, unloved – this was my poor broke-down mama of mixed race, Taina-Boricua, Roma and Irish descent. To the pedophiles, social workers, teachers and foster parents, she was only one thing, a colored child, without a parent who loved her, framed as a “burden to the state,” foster industry code used to solicit funding for her care. I reflected on my mama’s tragic story, which eventually led to her breakdown as an adult when I was 11 years old, as I was reading the crazy story of the “well-intentioned” U.S. missionaries facing charges in Haiti for child trafficking.

The herstory of repression of children and youth locally and globally begins with the racist, classist herstory of the orphan. For hundreds of years, from the Americas to Australia, missionaries targeted Native children as a key element of their assault on indigenous cultures, race and language. Stealing Native children who had parents to teach them the white man’s way and ultimately de-indigenize them at missionary and/or government run boarding schools became the template for the local and global orphanages that exist today in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, India, Haiti and beyond.

The lines have always been blurred between colonizer-killer, caregiver and educator in the child stealing-fostering-adoption industry. In the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a portion of the money made from that murderous project was used to build and fund the early orphanages in Liverpool, England. These homes were filled with impoverished children of Irish descent, whose parents were sold on a chance at hegemony, through formal education meted out to them as a form of charity and benefit.

Between 1854 and 1929 in the U.S. an estimated 200,000 children were “out-placed” during what is known today as the Orphan Train Movement. The orphan trains were filled with both abandoned children and children of poor families whose families had been “sold” on the idea that their children would attain a better life by being shipped out of the big cities back East to supposedly “healthy “ conditions which would be “in the best interests of the child,” a sentence that continues today to rationalize the seizure of poor children and children of color from their birth families into the ever-hungry jaws of our modern day foster care system.

The Children’s Aid Society that ran the orphan trains contracted with several private “handlers” who shipped the children to homes in the Midwest. Prospective families were required to go through a single interview with aid workers to qualify as a host home. After that original interview, the families and the children were never checked on again. There were countless stories of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, over-work and in some cases brutality of the “orphan” children reported later from those out-placements.

If there are no orphans, create them

Missionaries and philanthro-pimps of old almost always followed a certain pattern, which is consistent with most of today’s international orphanages: They spend countless resources to build the schools, boarding schools or orphanages with the intention of filling them with orphans, even if there are no orphans in the community. If there aren’t enough actual orphaned children, the churches, social workers and/or organizations will create them through a campaign of disinformation, based on an overall Western-held belief that people in poverty are inherently pathological and broken and therefore can’t care for their own children.

Historically, people from Western cultures swallow that kool-aid a little easier, albeit being left with a gnawing feeling that something went horribly wrong. Countless women in poverty and former teen mothers will tell you many years later how devastated they still feel about “giving up their children” but that everyone told them at the time it was in the best interests of their children.

The ‘best interests of the child’

Institutionally racist and classist U.S. adoption and foster care agencies, along with county-run child protective services agencies, are all established with a core mission that includes the goal to “protect” children in need, which is a good goal. But it becomes problematic when the concept of “in need” is judged through a Western, Eurocentric lens identifying what sanity, family and health is, thereby perpetuating what Black Psychology calls “a transubstantive error,” i.e., that your culture and worldview informs what you believe to be right and sane and healthy.

So if your culture has taught you that a two-parent household with both living under one roof is the model of stability and family health, you will view other family structures outside of that norm to be unhealthy and perhaps even aberrant and pathological. In tandem with Eurocentric cultural belief systems, a Eurocentric psychiatric and social work industry was established which promotes Eurocentric psychiatric models of sanity and pathology and provides the ammunition for Child Protective Services referrals, parental terminations and the criminalization of poor parents. In addition to parenting, that lens informs U.S. models of education, elder caregiving, housing, funding, service provision and policing.

So if you have a missionary, aid worker or social worker viewing a child being raised in a multi-generational community of caregivers, who have their children help the family to survive by working in different forms of labor, as well as learning through project-based elder-driven models of indigenous learning, that missionary might truly believe that the child is suffering or even being abused.

Imbued with this belief, missionaries and aid workers may actually believe they are “saving” the working child cared for by multiple community members in a village in Malawi, Nicaragua or Haiti. And like their Western counterparts in this process of seizure, the aid worker and missionary all use and abuse the phrase, “ in the best interests of the child.”

In a U.S. Child Protective Services (CPS) model, this phrase gets used to seize children from homes or from houseless parents just because the parents are poor or houseless or not following the Great White Way. In my family’s case, had I been “discovered” as not going to school, helping my disabled mama and working in underground economies, I would have been “out-placed” from our home by CPS. This “referral” also has a monetary incentive for the county and would have triggered a $12,500 pay-out to CPS.

Granted, there are serious cases of abuse of children by birth parents that warrant checking, temporary placement, support and community care-giving and, in the worst cases, the termination of parental rights, but the entire structure is rooted in a Western notion of proper parenting – beliefs that fuel the seizure of children from not only good parents in poverty, but families rich in culture, generations, community, eldership and beauty.

Seizing children and sending them to homes where they are essentially unprotected and their care is a crapshoot. If they are lucky, they are cared for and loved and, if unlucky, like my mama, subjected to torture, both sexually, physically and emotionally by over 22 foster homes before she was placed in an orphanage that funded itself through the labor of the children in residence.

Monetary incentive to seize children

The abuse of parents and families of color in poverty is so rampant by Child Protective Services agencies across the U.S. that it caused my Mama Dee to launch one of our most revolutionary and, to date, unfunded and unsupported media advocacy projects, called Courtwatch. As well as challenging the racist and classist biases of CPS and the foster care industry, Courtwatch promotes restoration, not separation, and has challenged all of these notions of “best interests.” Going even further, we ask why can’t the very poor family be offered the $12,500 paid in increments or with support to help them raise their own children.

People contact Courtwatch daily in serious trauma because their children have been seized by CPS agencies across the nation for the mere act of living in a shelter, not agreeing to a psychiatric evaluation and/or answering a social worker with an attitude. There are revolutionary organizations and Native peoples across the U.S. who have shown the correlations between CPS seizures and the enslavement of African peoples due to the unequal numbers of African and Native children seized for reasons related to poverty and racism and missionary beliefs of proper parenting.

Local to global

Within the context of the global orphan mythology, imperialism plays a large role in wide scale theft of children as it fits nicely with the colonization of people’s lands and resources, such as the seizure of mixed race children in the 1970s by Operation Babylift in Vietnam. “Well intentioned” social workers working for U.S. adoption agencies cajoled, demanded and ultimately lied to mothers in Vietnam to convince them to give up their babies so they could be shipped back to the U.S., where they would be “safe” from the horror of being a mixed race baby in Vietnam.

Horrific images depicted in the documentary “Daughter of Danang” showed countless Vietnamese mothers screaming, crying , holding their hearts and their babies as “nice” female social workers led their children to holding camps and off to the arms of waiting white parents in the U.S.

Which brings us back to the theft of the Haitian children. The trafficking of children for non-profit profit is common in the 21st century. If you have children in your program, it increases your chances of garnering donations, and almost every tale of “child-saving” begins with a “school.” Many of the international orphanages and homes led by people from the region where they are based – or led by grassroots revolutionary folks and/or religious groups who practice forms of liberation theology – are beautiful, revolutionary places that work to help families and children.

But unfortunately, many are run by closet pedophiles seeking to abuse and/or use unprotected children, by NGOs or by U.S.-based missionaries using children to garner profit. I was recently told the tale of a missionary group who set up shop in a small village in Nicaragua. This group spent several thousand dollars and a huge amount of local resources building a state of the art school.

After the group built it and tried to get students to enroll, no one in the community could afford the tuition. So with the mystical gift of institutional education as their carrot and rationale, the missionaries offered free tuition to the local families if they would send their children to come and live at the school. The local families agreed, seeing this as a good deal. Suddenly, this town had hundreds of “orphans” and the missionaries were seen as providing them with benevolent care, board and education.

Finally, a proper investigation

More groups of NGOs and aid organizations in Zimbabwe, Haiti and beyond have been snagged in the last 10 years for egregious money-making schemes, sexual and physical abuse scandals and on and on. That is why I was quietly cheering as the aid workers were charged and arrested and properly investigated on the international stage. Both the government and the community were stopping these people from stealing the children of Haiti, many of whom had living parents, to fill their “school” in the Dominican Republic.

How swiftly they had moved, like thieves in the night, to seize these children. But the global attention Haiti received because of the earthquake actually worked against them, causing peoples from across the globe to think twice about their country’s “orphans.”

Finally, many indigenous cultures across the globe have different ways of loving and caring for their children and elders which are rarely understood by Western aid workers. Their ways are not rooted in Western psychology or Christian morality, but rather they are rooted in eldership, respect, humility and interdependence.

Beliefs like the Malawi people practice, that all people are related to each other, and if I know you, I am responsible for your care. Notions and beliefs and values and dreams and poetry and love that we in the West can learn a lot from, beliefs that really are in the best interests of ALL peoples.

Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – who describes herself as “poverty scholar, daughter of Dee and welfareQUEEN,” is the consummate organizer and co-founder with her mother of POOR Magazine and its many offspring and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at deeandtiny@poormagazine.org.