September 21, 2023

30,000 Haitian children live in private orphanages. Officials want to close them down and reunite families.

SAINT-LOUIS-DU-SUD, Haiti (AP) — Mylouise Veillard was 10 when her mother dropped her off at an orphanage in southern Haiti and promised her a better life. Mylouise slept on a concrete floor for three years. When she was thirsty, she walked to a communal well and dragged heavy buckets of water herself. Meals were scarce and she was losing weight. She was worried about her younger brother, who struggled even more than she did in the institution.

It’s a familiar story among the estimated 30,000 Haitian children living in hundreds of orphanages where reports of forced labour, human trafficking, and physical and sexual abuse are rampant. In recent months, the government of Haiti has stepped up efforts to remove hundreds of these children and reunite them with their parents or relatives as part of a massive effort to close the institutions, the vast majority of which are privately owned.

Social workers run the venture, sometimes armed with only a photograph and a vague description of the neighborhood where the child once lived. It’s a tough task in a country with more than 11 million people without residential phone books and where many families have no physical address or digital footprint.

“It’s almost like detective work,” said Morgan Wienberg, co-founder and executive director of Little Footprints, Big Steps, one of several nonprofits that help reunite children and families. “It definitely comes down to a lot of perseverance.”

The social workers fan out through cities, towns and cities. They walk up hills, navigate mazes of tin-roofed huts, and knock on doors. With a smile they hold up a photo and ask if anyone recognizes the child.

They discover that some orphanages moved children without notifying their parents, or that families were forced to flee violence in their community and lost contact with their children.

Occasionally, social worker Jean Rigot Joseph said he will show children photos of landmarks to see if they remember where they lived. If he locates the parents, he will first determine if they are open to reuniting before revealing that he has found their child.

Like more than 80% of the children in Haiti’s orphanages, Veillard and her brother are considered “orphans of poverty.” Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with about 60% of the population earning less than two dollars a day. Unable to afford to feed their children, they temporarily place them in orphanages, where they believe they will receive better care.

“When parents give up their kids to orphanages, they really don’t see it as giving up their kids forever,” Wienberg said.

According to government figures, about 30,000 of the country’s approximately 4 million children live in about 750 orphanages in Haiti. Many were built after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people. In the months that followed, the number of orphanages in Haiti increased by 150%, leading to an increase in human trafficking, forced labor and abuse.

A 2018 report from Haiti’s Institute of Social Welfare and Research and others found that only 35 of 754 orphanages — less than 5% — met minimum standards and were allowed to operate. Meanwhile, 580 orphanages received the lowest score, meaning the government must close them.

In response to the report, the government of Haiti banned the construction of new orphanages and closed existing orphanages. But closing orphanages can be dangerous. Government officials have been threatened or forced into hiding as owners try to keep in generous donations from abroad; According to Lumos, a non-profit organization dedicated to reuniting children in orphanages around the world with their families, American faith-based donors are the largest funders of orphanages in Haiti.

There is no group or association that speaks on behalf of the orphanages in Haiti, as the vast majority are individually owned.

Homes are a necessity for children whose parents cannot feed them or protect them from violence, says Sister Paesie, who founded the Kizito Family religious organization in Port-au-Prince. It houses and provides free education to some 2,000 children from impoverished slums.

“The idea is to remove them from the violence,” she said, and parents are invited to visit.

Gangs control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince, according to the UN, and are blamed for a spate of murders and kidnappings, especially in areas where the Kizito Family’s children come from.

Sister Paesie denounced orphanages linked to the lucrative adoption business.

“It gives rise to so much abuse instead of trying to help the parents, which is what we always try to do,” she said.

But reuniting children with parents is difficult when they’ve fled the violence and don’t have a home, she said.

“In the past month I have seen so many mothers sleeping on the street with their children,” she said. “I have dozens of mothers asking me every day to bring their kids because they don’t have food to feed them.”

Reunification efforts have been successful in the more rural parts of Haiti, where gangs don’t have as much control and families can grow their own food.

In rural areas in southern Haiti, some 330 children are now living with their families again. When that day came for Mylouise, now 17, and her brother, they were so excited that they ran out of the orphanage, leaving their sandals behind, Renèse Estève, their mother, recalls.

They joined Estève, her new partner, their new child and another sibling in a one-bedroom house at the foot of a mountain where farmers grow corn, potatoes and vetiver, a plant whose oil is used in high-end perfumes .

Wienberg’s non-profit organization built the house for Estève as part of an effort to support post-reunification families to avoid further economic tension and another divorce. Other efforts include hiring an agronomist to help families produce crops to eat or sell amid crippling inflation that has pushed Haitians into even deeper poverty.

Two of the children sleep on the concrete floor; there are only two small beds in their house. Near the beds, the children keep their only toys: a small cuddly moose and teddy bear, a Hello Kitty wallet and a “Black Panther” lunch box.

Estève said it was painful to leave children in the orphanage, even though she occasionally visited them. She had no job or partner to help feed and care for them. During their visits, the children told her that they were not well and asked for food. Estève herself struggled to eat at home, thinking about her two children.

“Sometimes I felt like killing myself,” she said.

One day, shocked by the weight they had lost, she decided to pick up the children with the help of social workers. She was convinced that they would be better off in abject poverty than in the orphanage.

Key to reunification efforts are mentors like Eluxon Tassy, ​​32, who works with children living on the streets, in orphanages, or in transition as they prepare to return home.

“I understand exactly what they are going through,” he said.

He was 4 when his mother dropped him off at an orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where he lived for nearly 15 years. He said he was also forced to spend two years with a family who exploited him as a child domestic helper, known in Haiti as a restavek. He never went to school despite promises from the family to enroll him in exchange for cleaning the house and taking care of farm animals.

Tassy’s number one priority in helping children transition home is to gain trust and build confidence. He uses art and music and sings the alphabet with the young people. He asks how they feel about their orphanage, but is careful not to question them too much.

Sometimes he has to explain the concept of a family and the importance of affection if a chil
d does not remember his parents or has been away from them for a long time.

In Estève’s case, her children reconnected with her almost immediately. To celebrate, she cooked two meals that day: the traditional Haitian spaghetti breakfast and later rice and beans loaded with a fish sauce.

“It was easy,” she said. “We were a family again.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *