Haitian ‘orphan’ didn’t know where she was going or who was taking her

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 – Globe and Mail

SANTO, HAITI — For she knows not how long, Berline Chéry travelled toward the Dominican border in a blue-and-white bus with 32 other children. She didn’t know where they were going or who was taking them there. She knew only that the blans, who spoke French and fed her buttered bread and water, had told her mother they would help her and enroll her in school. Finally, in the dark, the children started to cry. That’s when the police opened the doors and found them.

Ten-year-old Berline and the others are now in the care of SOS Children’s Village, a refuge for unaccompanied youth in Santo, northwest of Port-au-Prince. More than anything else, the compound of 240 children resembles a rustic summer camp. But Berline and two of the boys from her convoy – twins Keler and Volny Toussaint – don’t like it here. The other kids are mean, she says.

“I need to find my maman – tomorrow. Early. She won’t come here.”

She looks away, old enough to be embarrassed by the tears streaming down her face.

“Can I go home now?”

The Haitian government is accusing a group of 10 U.S. Baptists of trying to take Berline, Keler, Volny and 30 other children – two of them just two months old – out of the country illegally. The Americans, in custody at Port-au-Prince’s judicial police headquarters, insist that the affair is just a paperwork mix-up.

But Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the Associated Press yesterday the Americans, who say they’d planned to take the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, knew what they were doing was wrong.

No charges have been laid, and although government officials initially said the group would be tried in Haiti because that’s where the alleged offence took place, it wasn’t clear yesterday where a trial would take place.

Thousands of displaced children are among the most vulnerable survivors of the earthquake that shattered Haiti – a country that was already struggling to deal with child trafficking and exploitation. Even as government officials say they’re being vigilant in preventing children from being exploited or removed from the country without authorization, child advocates fear this was by no means an isolated incident.

With Haiti in a state of postdisaster chaos, an estimated 150,000 people killed and more than one million displaced, it’s easy to find children – in refugee camps, makeshift orphanages or boarding with other families – who are on their own and profoundly vulnerable. Some orphanages report strangers knocking at their doors asking whether adoptions have become easier in the wake of the quake. Others are only too willing to offer up a child at a moment’s notice to a visiting foreigner.

The Haitian government cracked down on adoptions last week because of child-trafficking concerns. Now no child can be taken out of the country without the express permission of Mr. Bellerive.

“Little late,” says Rev. Miguel Jean-Baptiste with a bitter laugh. “They should have done this at the beginning. But maybe the government has other priorities.”

Father Jean-Baptiste is founder of Foyer Maurice Sixto, a school designed exclusively for restaveks – children whose rural-dwelling parents send them to live with urban families so they can get a better education.

This rarely happens, however. Restaveks invariably become indentured domestic servants for the entirety of their childhood. They’re among the most vulnerable in times of disaster like this, because they tend to be undervalued by their host families and have no blood relatives to look out for them.

Father Jean-Baptiste has made himself a prominent advocate for restaveks and other Haitian children – all of whom, he says, are now in a state of trauma and in need of care.

“The government has so much to do, it’s up to us – civil society – to try to advocate for children.”

Aid groups have cautioned against regarding international adoption as a quick solution to the difficulties facing Haiti’s children, even in cases where the children are genuine orphans and those adopting them are entirely honest and above board.

“It’s always preferable to keep the kids in the community and provide support for the people looking after them,” said CARE spokesman Rick Perera. “Kids, like everyone else, have community, have family ties. It’s important to maintain those.”

But despite growing concerns, international adoptions have been on the rise. According to the Haitian government, they almost doubled between 2002 and 2006, from 720 to 1,404.

But even those rising figures don’t match the estimated 2,000 children illegally trafficked out of Haiti annually.

Within minutes of the stranger entering her orphanage in the impoverished Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour, Nicole Lafalaise Joseph has an adoption form in hand. Can a visitor adopt one of the hundred-odd children in her charge? Today? Absolutely, she says.

Her assistant director Frantzi Nonnombre corrects her.

“No, you need more planning than that,” he says. “You need the proper documents. … Maybe next week.”

Both Berline and the Toussaint brothers (they aren’t sure of their age, although Berline thinks they’re nine years old) say they were living with their parents, siblings and cousins in the same neighbourhood in Calbas, outside of Port-au-Prince. There’s an orphanage nearby, Berline notes quietly. Maybe that’s why they were chosen.

Organizers of the New Life Children’s Refuge have said they verified that the 33 “orphans” they were attempting to take across the border were indeed parentless. But UNICEF spokesman Kent Page said it’s almost impossible to tell, in the wake of such a massive disaster, who has parents and who doesn’t. UNICEF is registering all unaccompanied children in a family-retracing process that could take months, if not years.

But for some families at the end of their rope, sending children to a life among strangers doesn’t seem that bad.

Sitting on the ground beside a bubbling concoction in a makeshift cooking pot, 61-year-old Thérèse Maurice doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Of course,” she says, when asked if she would give up her grandchildren – all five of them, between the ages of two and 15, who have been living with her and four other adults in a tent in a Carrefour schoolyard for close to three weeks now.

“The children have suffered enough already.”

She and others have heard of foreigners offering money in exchange for children. But it hasn’t happened in their neighbourhood. Even the relative haven of SOS Children’s Village, whose international organization Governor-General Michaëlle Jean recently endorsed, is taking precautions. All its children now sport white wristbands with their name, to guard against their being lost or snatched away.

SOS Children’s Village spokesman George Willeit says there are social workers and psychologists at the centre trying to help the 33 bewildered and traumatized children who arrived on Saturday afternoon with nothing but the clothes on their backs – which have since been replaced, he said – and pink name tags across their chests. But he said even the ones with parents can’t go home any time soon – not until the government finishes its investigation.

“We don’t want to send them away today and have them end up on another bus tomorrow.”

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