Sunday, February 07, 2010

Bleak Picture of Haitian Orphanages

(Orphaned baby in Port-au-Prince. Photo by John Carroll.)

There are good Haitian orphanages and bad Haitian orphanages.

We have seen great care in some orphanages and and negligence in others. I have seen a baby boy's leg allowed to become gangrenous as the orphanage director travelled to and from the United States on business. The baby became septic and died.

There was an estimated 380,000 orphans in Haiti before the earthquake on January 12.

Let us not beat around the bush too much. The majority of Haiti's government and child welfare system could care less about Haiti's orphans. Both entities were broken before the earthquake.

Poverty is the main reason for Haiti's orphans.

Money should be spent to put "orphaned" children back in their biologic Haitian families that can no longer feed and clothe their children. The Haitian family needs to be supported with jobs. Haitian parents don't want to give up their children...they simply have no choice.

See article below.

February 7, 2010
Bleak Portrait of Haiti Orphanages Raises Fears
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The floors were concrete and the windows were broken.

There was no electricity or running water. Lunch looked like watery grits. Beds were fashioned from sheets of cardboard. And the only toilet did not work.

But the Foyer of Patience here is like hundreds of places that pass as orphanages for thousands of children in the poorest country in the hemisphere. Many are barely habitable, much less licensed. They have no means to provide real schooling or basic medical care, so children spend their days engaged in mindless activities, and many die from treatable illnesses.

Haiti’s child welfare system was broken before the earthquake struck. But as the quake shattered homes and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, the number of children needing care grew exponentially.

Chronic problems — like inadequate services, overwhelming poverty and shady orphanages — have only intensified, while the authorities fear that some of the less scrupulous orphanages are taking advantage of the chaos to round up children in crisis and offer them for sale as servants and sex slaves.

But it took the arrest last weekend of 10 Americans caught trying to leave the country with 33 Haitian children to focus international attention on the issue. While there is no evidence that the Americans, who said they were trying to rescue children in the aftermath of the earthquake, intended any harm, the ease with which they drove into the capital and scooped up a busload of children without documents exposed vast gaps in the system’s safeguards.

“This has called the world’s attention because it is the first clear piece of evidence that our fears have come true,” said Patricia Vargas, the regional coordinator for SOS Children’s Villages, which provides services to abandoned children around the world. “Our concern as an organization is how many other cases are out there that we are not aware of.”

At the front lines of the system are the orphanages, which run the gamut from large, well-equipped institutions with international financing to one-room hovels in a slum where a single woman cares for abandoned children as best she can.

Most of the children in them, the authorities said, are not orphans, but children whose parents are unable to provide for them. To desperate parents, the orphanage is a godsend, a temporary solution to help a child survive a particularly tough economic stretch. Many orphanages offer regular family visiting hours and, when their situations improve, parents are allowed to take their children back home.

But instead of protecting Haiti’s most vulnerable population, some orphanages have become tools of exploitation, the authorities fear.

“There are many so-called orphanages that have opened in the last couple of years that are not really orphanages at all,” said Frantz Thermilus, the chief of Haiti’s National Judicial Police. “They are fronts for criminal organizations that take advantage of people who are homeless and hungry. And with the earthquake they see an opportunity to strike in a big way.”

There is no precise count of the number of orphanages in this country, the number of children living in them, or of the children who are victims of trafficking, although Unicef estimates that number in the tens of thousands per year. The authorities said thousands of those trafficked were sold as servants, known as restaveks, to well-to-do Haitian families. Others, officials say, are smuggled into the Dominican Republic to do domestic and agricultural work, often in appalling conditions.

In recent years, the government has tried to crack down on trafficking, establishing special police units known as child protection brigades that monitor children leaving the airports or crossing borders. But a State Department report issued last year said the brigades did not pursue trafficking cases because there was no Haitian law against the practice. The government “did shut down a number of unregistered orphanages whose residents were believed to be vulnerable to trafficking,” the report said.

And in the wake of the earthquake, the authorities suspended all adoptions pending a review of hundreds of applications already in the system.

But Haitian authorities acknowledge that the fledgling efforts of a financially struggling government long plagued by corruption have proved little match for the highly organized, multimillion-dollar criminal networks.

Manuel Fontaine, a child protection specialist with Unicef, said his agency was also concerned that Haiti’s inability to monitor orphanages and keep track of children moving in and out of them left them open to abuses.

“With the system already fragile before the quake, we knew something like this could happen,” he said of the effort by the 10 Americans. “We warned authorities here to be on the lookout.”

It was unclear what the future holds for the 50 children crammed into two bedrooms at the Foyer of Patience, some of them scampering around in clothes that were either too big or too small, and others wearing no clothes at all.

The director of the orphanage, Enoch Anequaire, said he opened the center five years ago but has had no time to get a license. He said he provided an education to the children, but there was not a single book, piece of paper or pencil in the house.

He said he fed them three square meals. At noon, one recent day, several said that they had had nothing to eat.

Mr. Anequaire, whose own clothes were pressed and shoes polished, said he had been overwhelmed with new children since the earthquake. He pointed out five boys who arrived last Wednesday and said that an aunt had brought them in because their homes had collapsed, and that their mothers were unable to feed them.

Some of the children, however, said Mr. Anequaire had come looking for them.

“He came to my house and told my mother he needed 10 more kids,” said one of the boys, whose names were withheld from this article to protect them from retribution.

Mr. Anequaire denied this version of events.

Across the street stands another orphanage, two-story compound called the Foyer of Zion, where more than 60 children live in airy, cheerfully decorated rooms. Still, on a recent visit, it was woefully understaffed and poorly equipped. Children in the nursery were kept in stacked wooden boxes rather than cribs.

The director, Marjorie Mardy, said that the center was financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that several members from the United States had rushed to Port-au-Prince after the earthquake to take home children who had been in the adoption process for more than two years.

Most of the children, however, were in legal limbo, she said. Their parents had not given up custody, nor had they any clear plans for bringing the children home. Many children had been dropped off at the orphanage without any documents providing their names, ages or need for specialized care, which Ms. Mardy acknowledges she is unable to provide.

There was a baby so frail and shriveled she was clearly sick, but Ms. Mardy said she had not been able to take her for tests. A toddler who seemed lethargic and unresponsive had been running a low-grade fever since arriving at the orphanage after the earthquake. But she had not been taken to a doctor.

“In Haiti, it’s not like the United States where people have jobs and homes and security,” Ms. Mardy said. “And if people have no security, how can they give security to their children?

“We try to give them that security,” she said. “But at times like these, it’s overwhelming.”

The solution, say child protection advocates, lies as much in fixing families as fixing orphanages.

“If we are going to really protect children, orphanages have to become a family’s last resort,” said Suzanna Tkalec, a human rights lawyer and child protection specialist at Catholic Relief Services, which is developing a program to provide social and economic support for the families of some 2,000 displaced children.

“Anything that recreates a family is a much better option.”

Lomene Nerisier is a living example of what is possible. After her husband kicked her and their three children out of their house in La Mardelle, she begged an orphanage in the village to give the children to a family that might provide them a better life.

The director, Gina Duncan, offered Ms. Nerisier a job instead. She received part of her salary in cash and the other part in materials to build her own house. Three years later, she not only takes care of her own children, but she also teaches preschool.

Today she is proud of her accomplishment, but not naïve about what sets her apart from the vast majority of mothers in this country.

“I am lucky,” she said. “So many women do not have jobs. They do not have land to grow food for their children. If their choice is to watch their children starve or give them away, they are going to give them away, and hope that they have put them in good hands.”

Either way, the decision is heart-wrenching for parent and child. Stanley Vixamar, 10, cried through the night on his first night at the Foyer of Patience.

“I wanted to stay with my mother even though our house has fallen down,” he said. “I love her.”

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