Port-au-Prince/Haiti, June 13 (BNA): Melouise Villard was 10 years old when her mother dropped her off at an orphanage in southern Haiti with the promise of a better life.
For three years, Melois slept on a concrete floor. When she got thirsty, she walked to my community well and fetched heavy buckets of water herself. Meals were scarce, and I lost weight. She worried about her younger brother, who struggled more than she had at the facility.
It’s a familiar story among the estimated 30,000 Haitian children living in hundreds of orphanages where reports of forced labor, trafficking, and physical and sexual abuse are rife, the Associated Press reports.
In recent months, the Haitian government has stepped up efforts to remove hundreds of such children and reunite them with their parents or relatives as part of an intensified campaign to close institutions, the vast majority of which are privately owned.
Social workers lead the quest, sometimes armed only with a photo and a vague description of the neighborhood the child once lived in. It’s a daunting task in a country of more than 11 million people with no residential phone books, and where many families don’t have a physical address or digital footprint.
“They’re almost like detectives,” said Morgan Weinberg, co-founder and CEO of Little Footprints, Big Steps, one of several nonprofits that help reunite children and families. “It certainly comes down to a lot of perseverance.”
Social workers are spread out in cities, towns and villages. They run up hills, navigate labyrinths of tin-roofed shacks and knock on doors. With a smile, they hold up a picture and ask if anyone recognizes the child.
They found that some orphanages relocated children without notifying their parents, or forced families to flee violence in their community and lost touch with their children.
Sometimes, social worker Jean Rigot-Joseph said he would show children pictures of landmarks to see if they remembered where they lived. If he locates the parents, he will first determine if they are open to a reunion before revealing that he has found their child.
Like more than 80% of children in orphanages in Haiti, Villard and her brother are “poor orphans.” Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with about 60% of the population earning less than $2 a day. When parents cannot feed their children, they temporarily place them in orphanages, where they believe they will get better care.
“When parents give up their children in orphanages, they really don’t see it as giving their children up for good,” Weinberg said.
Nearly 30,000 of the nearly 4 million children across the country live in some 750 orphanages across Haiti, according to government figures. Many of them 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 trafficking, forced labor and abuse.
A 2018 report by the Haitian 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 had the lowest score, which means the government must order their closure.
In response to the report, the Haitian government 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 the owners seek a continued flow of generous donations from abroad; Religious donors in the United States are the largest funders of orphanages in Haiti, according to the nonprofit Lumos, which works to reunite children in orphanages around the world with their families.
There is no group or association speaking up for orphanages in Haiti because the vast majority are individually owned.
Homes are essential for children whose parents cannot feed them or protect them from violence, said Sister Paisi, who founded the religious organization Kizito Family in Port-au-Prince. It houses and provides free education to about 2,000 children from poor slums.
“The idea is to keep them away from violence,” she said, and parents are invited to visit.
Gangs control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince, according to the United Nations, and have been blamed for an increase in killings and kidnappings, especially in the areas where the children in the Kizito family hail from.
Sister Pacey condemned the orphanages associated with the lucrative adoption business.
“It leads to a lot of abuse instead of trying to help the parents, which we always try to do,” she said.
She said reuniting children with their parents is difficult when they are fleeing violence and do not have a home.
“In the past month, I have seen many mothers sleeping on the streets with their children,” she said.
“I have dozens of mothers asking me every day to take their children because they don’t have food to give them.”
Reunification efforts have been successful in more rural areas of Haiti where gangs do not have as much control and families can grow their own food.
In rural areas of southern Haiti, some 330 children are now living with their families. When that day arrived for Melouise, 17, and her brother, they were so excited that they had run away from the orphanage and left their sandals behind, their mother, Renee Esteve, recalls.
They join Estève, her new partner, their new baby, and another sibling in a one-bedroom house on a mountainside where farmers grow corn, potatoes, and vetiver, a plant whose oil is used in fine perfumes.
Wienberg’s nonprofit organization Estève built the home as part of an effort to help support families after a reunion to avoid further economic stress and another breakup. Other efforts include hiring an agronomist to help families produce crops to eat or sell amid crippling inflation that has pushed Haitians deeper into poverty.
Two children sleep on a concrete floor. There are only two small beds in their house. Near the beds, the children keep their only toys: a small stuffed moose and a bear, a Hello Kitty bag and a “Black Panther” lunch box.
Leaving the children in the orphanage was traumatic, Esteve said, even though she visited them occasionally. She had no business or partner to help feed and care for them. During their visits, the children told her they were not feeling well and asked for food. Esteve herself struggled to eat at home, thinking of her two children.
“Sometimes I felt like killing myself,” she said.
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