Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- "Stop reunifying children with their families!"
These were the words that greeted me when I arrived at work one morning a few months ago, from the director of a Port-au-Prince orphanage, furious at me for doing my job: tracing the relatives of children separated from their families.
"You are destroying my business," he screamed.
We suspected that the orphanage director, who runs one of an estimated 600-plus orphanages in Haiti, was making a profit by using children to garner donations and fees from dubious adoptions.
My job -- as coordinator of the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) family tracing and reunification program in Haiti -- is to help remove children from abusive or exploitative situations, like this man's orphanage, and place them in a safe family environment.
While there are an estimated 124,000 children who lost one parent and 7,000 who lost both parents during the earthquake that struck Haiti last January, (according to USAID/DCHA), and others who were orphaned before last year's disaster, the reality is that the majority of children in these orphanages are not orphans at all. Many have living parents and relatives who, while they love their children, feel that they do not have the economic means to house, clothe, feed and send them to school. Orphanages that promise a better life for children may appear attractive to poor families, but there is often no way of knowing whether the children are treated well and given access to health care and education, or whether they are being exploited, abused or trafficked. Some Haitian orphanages are run by well-intentioned people who have the means and ability to properly care for groups of vulnerable children, but many of these facilities are unregulated and routinely disregard basic human rights.
I spent several hours at one such facility in late January after the IRC received reports of suspicious deaths, disappearances and abuse of children. I was accompanied by my Haitian colleagues, social workers trained by the IRC, and representatives from the government Institute for Social Well Being and Research (IBESR). The faith-based group that ran the orphanage was openly hostile to our presence and reluctant to give us access. Once we managed to get inside, it was a dismal scene. Small children sat inertly in rows, some on benches and others on the floor, and I was struck by the lack of noise in a space where there were more than 70 children. The children barely talked or moved, returning our greetings with vacant stares. A few children showed a spark of interest in playing with my colleagues, but most of the younger children were unresponsive, while the older children were extremely wary and distrustful of speaking to strangers. Several of the children were brought to a nearby IRC medical clinic and treated for high fever, flu and a variety of skin infections. Several of the children were also found to be malnourished and were referred for treatment.
A colleague from another international child protection organization recently told me about a troubling visit he made to a residential center for children in the south of Haiti. The children, my colleague said, were all painfully thin. He asked the head of the center if they had the means to feed the children adequately, and the director replied: "We have lots of money. But we if keep the children thin, when we send pictures to church groups in the United States, they send more money. If we send pictures of children who look healthy, they don't send as much money."
Another colleague, an international aid worker who had worked in a Port-au-Prince orphanage, told me of an orphanage where she had witnessed babies being placed on a chair and then left unsupervised, where they were in danger of rolling off onto the floor. When the aid worker instinctively rushed to catch one child, she was scolded by the orphanage staff to let the child fall: "This is how they learn to keep still and quiet."
I've spent over six years working in child protection across 10 countries, including in regions that have been ravaged by brutal conflict, but I am still deeply shocked when I hear about this kind of behavior. At a basic human level, how can anyone treat a child like this?
This handful of personal anecdotes provides a glimpse into a much larger, systemic problem of orphanages in Haiti. Granted not all of them are terrible places and not all are run by exploitative or heartless opportunists. Indeed, some of them fill a badly-needed gap in temporary child care. But the reality is that far too many of these harmful institutions exist.
The Haitian government body responsible for child welfare, IBESR, suffered tremendous losses in the earthquake and is struggling to monitor and regulate the numerous institutions throughout the country. The IRC is part of an inter-agency effort to help IBESR carry out this important work. Those of us involved in this effort fear that the many for-profit orphanages are using the challenging post-earthquake situation to their advantage by operating under the radar to lure children from poor families and then offer them up in the interests of international donations, dubious international adoptions or trafficking. As Frantz Thermilus, chief of Haiti's judicial police, told the New York Times, "so-called orphanages that have opened in the last couple of years" are actually "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."
A recent report by the international aid organization Save the Children detailed these "recruitment" campaigns by unregulated institutions, outlining how children from poor families are then sold for profit to child traffickers and shady adoption agencies. The report criticizes the financial and material support of such agencies, often by unwitting or unknowing donors in foreign countries, noting that such support can actually lead to an increase in the separation of children from their families and result in psychological and emotional damage to children. "For every three months a child spends in an orphanage," the report says, "they lose one month of development. If young children grow up in large group care, a lack of long-term individual care can result in permanent brain damage."
Rather than strengthening the activities of the for-profit orphanages, the IRC believes in helping parents and extended family members to care for their own children. In coordination with the government, the IRC is working with children, their families and communities to enable sustainable family reunification. Instead of pouring money into institutions that keep families apart while robbing children of the right to be raised in a nurturing family environment, we would prefer to see those funds used to bolster a parent or caregiver's ability to provide for their child. I would urge readers to ask themselves: where would you rather your money go?
To find out more about the International Rescue Committee's work in Haiti, please go to rescue.org/haiti