PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — The government’s social-welfare office in this city buzzes with ringing phones, rotating fan blades and a constant current of warm air.
This is the team that’s tasked with monitoring orphanages and foster families. It’s a high-stress job, given the number of unregistered children’s homes in Haiti.
“Children are the future of our nation, but lack of effective psychological care will deprive them of their ability to reach their full potential, rendering them incapable of doing their bit toward ensuring a rosy future for our nation,” says Vanel Benjamin, a social worker who’s been at the office for 10 years.
Benjamin says his office intends to examine every children’s home or similar institution in the country and either accredit it or shut it down.
But Benjamin and other children’s advocates who analyze such institutions in Haiti say it’s difficult even to track the number of orphanages and similar institutions in the country.
The Institut du Bien-être Social et de Recherches, where Benjamin works, estimates that there are about 750 such institutions in this country of roughly 10.8 million. That’s one institution for every 15,000 people, if the number is correct. Officials say they can’t be sure, because so many of those institutions are unregistered and operate in the shadows.
In the worst cases, the institutions are money-making enterprises that exploit children, most of whom have at least one living parent, according to government reports. Many institutions are poorly maintained, and children face malnutrition and abuse.
The move to accredit children’s homes was sparked after a major 2010 earthquake that flattened huge portions of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and other sections of the country. More than 300,000 were killed or never found. Aid agencies widely noted that many children were orphaned in the quake, but there’s no verifiable data showing exactly how many children lost one or both parents.
By 2014, Benjamin says, there was a groundswell of support in Haiti for closer monitoring of children’s homes. Partner agencies joined the government in 2015 in its ongoing effort to visit every institution and evaluate it before granting a two-year accreditation.
Of the estimated 750 institutions in the country, about 150 have been closed, and 66 have been registered and accredited, Benjamin says.
The ultimate goal is to eradicate orphanages and children’s institutions in Haiti, Benjamin says, but he acknowledges that will take time. For now, he says, the government is working to place as many children as possible with families and to ensure that each institution is approved by the government.
Already, some children have found homes with families. Dormil Fénélus says he felt compelled to take in a child in need in part because of a conviction that he has a duty to do so as a Haitian citizen but also because he remembers a time when others helped him.
“I grew up in a rural area. To finish high school, I was forced to go to town with an aunt who considered me equal to her children,” Fénélus says.
Now with a family of his own, Fénélus welcomed 6-year-old Goodeline nearly a year ago. The girl is as integrated into the family as are his own biological children, Fénélus says.
But many families continue to see institutions as a way to ease the stress of raising children, particularly when the families are desperately poor.
Claudette Alexis, 39, says she struggles to care for her children.
“Life has never been rosy for me,” she says. “I’ve been forced to fend for myself ever since I was a teenager. And, as fate would have it, I found myself in dire circumstances and ended up having kids with different men.”
Alexis says she gave her two youngest children to a children’s home, where she believes they were or will be made available for international adoption. The oldest three live with her, and even caring for them is a serious burden, she says.
Some parents hand over their children without much thought, says Gladys Maximillien, who owns and operates Maison des Anges, an accredited children’s home that coordinates adoptions.
About 100 children live in the home right now, she says, but she declined to state how many children have been adopted from the home in the past.
“I’ve seen countless times how women have intentionally dumped their kids at the doors of my house,” she says. “Such kids would have been tossed in the trash, falling prey to the hogs if there had not been good-hearted women like me.”
Emile Jo-Athniel, 16, eagerly awaits the day when the Haitian government reunites children with their families. He’s been living in a children’s home in Port-au-Prince’s Clercine neighborhood for seven years.
“I never knew my father, and only very rarely do I see my mom, and I miss her so much,” he says.
His mother didn’t want him to live in the children’s home, he says, but she had few options.
Benjamin, too, knows that the process of closing children’s homes and reunifying children with their families is long and tedious. But if the government continues to prioritize the project, he says, the entire country will benefit.
“I’m confident that we will be able to improve our nation’s image and change the image of our country and make life worth living for our offspring, if we all pitch in together,” he says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.