The earthquake intensified the problems of poverty and ineffectual government.
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 centres 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.
And in the wake of an earthquake that has left this city in ruins, there is growing concern that an already strained system is being overwhelmed, that inadequate orphanages are taking in more children than they can handle and that vulnerable parents are turning to unregulated and often shady organisations for help. Haitian and international authorities also 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 indentured servants and sex slaves.
Haiti’s child welfare system was broken before the earthquake struck, a casualty of grinding poverty and ineffectual government. The earthquake intensified both problems even as it shattered homes and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, multiplying the number of children in need of care.
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 nation’s most vulnerable population. While there is no evidence that the Americans, who said they were trying to rescue the children from the earthquake, meant any harm, the case exposed the vast holes in the system that traffickers exploit to trade on an estimated tens of thousands of Haitian children a year.
International children’s advocacy groups say the ease with which the Americans could drive into the capital and scoop up a busload of undocumented children points out the lack of safeguards in the system.
“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 organisation is how many other cases are out there that we are not aware of.”
The front line of the system is the orphanage, which in Haiti runs the gamut from large, well-equipped institutions with significant international financing to one-room hovels where a single woman in a poor slum cares for abandoned children as best she can.
Most of the children living in them, the authorities said, are not orphans at all, 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 visiting hours for parents, and when their situations improve, parents are allowed to pick up their children and take them back home.
Tools of exploitation
But instead of protecting vulnerable children, the authorities fear that some orphanages have become tools of their exploitation.
“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 organiSations that take advantage of people who are homeless and hungry. And with the earthquake they see an opportunity to strike in a big way.”
With black markets difficult to quantify, there is no precise count of the numbers of orphanages in this country, the numbers of children living in them, or the numbers of Haitian children who are victims of trafficking, although UNICEF estimates that number in the tens of thousands of per year. The authorities said thousands of those trafficked were sold as servants, known as restaveks, for well-to-do Haitian families. Others, officials say, are smuggled into the Dominican Republic to do domestic and agricultural work, often in appalling conditions, without any rights.
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 country’s airports or crossing its borders. But a State Department report issued last year says the brigades do not pursue trafficking cases because there is 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.
The Haitian authorities also acknowledge that the fledgling efforts of a financially struggling government long plagued by corruption have proved little match for the highly organised, multimillion-dollar criminal networks.
In the wake of the earthquake, the authorities put all adoptions on hold pending a review of hundreds of applications already in process.
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 gambit 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 centre five years ago but was so busy serving children that he had no time to bother with getting a license. He boasted that he provided an education to the children at his orphanage. But there was not a single book, piece of paper or pencil in the house.
He said he fed the children three square meals. At noon, one recent day, several said that they had had nothing to eat.
Anequaire, whose clothes were pressed and shoes polished, said he had been overwhelmed with new children pouring into the orphanage since the earthquake. He summoned five boys between the ages of 6 and 12 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, told a different story. They said 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.
“He told my mother he would give us food,” said one of the other boys in the group. “Since there was no food in our house, she told us to go.”
Anequaire denies this version of events.
Across the street from the Foyer of Patience stands a two-story compound called the Foyer of Zion, whose staff cares for more than 60 children from 2 months to 10 years old. Zion’s airy, cheerfully decorated rooms are a world apart from those at the Foyer of Patience. Still, on a recent visit, it was woefully understaffed and poorly equipped. And children in the nursery were kept in stacked wooden boxes with some bedding inside, rather than cribs.
The director, Marjorie Mardy, said that the centre was financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and that several members from Idaho 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 at the Foyer of Zion, however, were in legal limbo, Mardy 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, birthplaces or whether they needed special medical care. — © 2010 The New York Times News Service