What Will Happen To Children In Haiti?

American aid workers were arrested Saturday for attempting to take 33 Haitian children out of the country. New York Times correspondent Deborah Sontag and Newsweek reporter Katie Paul discuss the history of child trafficking and exploitation in Haiti — and what will come next for kids affected by the earthquake.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Last Friday, Haitian authorities arrested a group of American Baptist missionaries at the Dominican border. They now face trial because they failed to get authorization for what they describe as an effort to rescue 33 children from the post-earthquake chaos.

Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, describes it as illegal trafficking, and his government has cut off all new adoptions of Haitian orphans.

The case opens up many issues about Haitian children. Even before the earthquake, thousands were lost every year to human traffickers who took them away into a life of slavery. Many others became known as restavec, sent by their families to live with people who were better off, where they often worked as servants in exchange for bed and board, and of course there are very serious problems of health care, nutrition and education, all made vastly worse by the devastation.

Later in the program, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood joins us to talk about the Toyota recall and about distracted driving. But first, if you'd like to join the conversation on the future of Haiti's children, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Deborah Sontag joins us from her desk at the New York Times, where she's a correspondent just back from Haiti. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms.�DEBORAH SONTAG (New York Times): Nice to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And do we know enough about what happened with these American missionaries to describe this as a well-meaning effort gone wrong?

Ms.�SONTAG: I don't think we do. They, you know, are certainly maintaining that they were, you know, working from the bottom of their heart, you know, trying to rescue children, but the circumstances, you know, raise some questions.

They had a busload of kids. They had not ascertained whether or not they had, you know, parents or relatives willing to care for them. There are reports that some of the kids were actually turned over to this group by the parents themselves, and surely they must know that there are international and national rules governing, you know, adoption that require documentation and that there's a process involved. Yet for some reason they seem to have thought that in the midst of a crisis, these rules could be were suspended.

You know, I can't comment on their well-meaningness, and they say that they are well-meaning, but you know, lots of people want to help the children of Haiti, and that doesn't mean that they're going to go in there with a bus and drive them to a neighboring country.

CONAN: And as I understand it, well, the justice system is among the many things in Haiti that were seriously damaged by the earthquake. If these people do face trial, it's likely to happen in the United States?

Ms.�SONTAG: I don't think anyone really knows how this is going to play itself out at this point. There is not a functioning justice system in Haiti at the moment. There was a weak one before, and I you know, the Haitian and American governments are talking about this, trying to figure out how to proceed from here.

The Haitian government would like to send a very strong message that anything does not go and that, you know, they have systems on the border with the Dominican Republic that existed before the earthquake to prevent the trafficking of children, and they are still, you know, eager to create the impression that there is some system still in place.

CONAN: And indeed, this issue of children, it's a sensitive issue that goes deeply into Haitian history.

Ms.�SONTAG: Right.

CONAN: This country was founded by a slave rebellion. Ideas that these children can be taken away into slavery is obviously something that touches a very raw nerve.

Ms.�SONTAG: Right, and there has, as you mentioned in your introduction, there's been a kind of tolerated system of indentured servitude where very poor children were working for poor families. That has existed and is, you know, a part of Haitian culture that Haiti is very uncomfortable with, and that's, you know, existed before the earthquake and could potentially get much worse at this point.

CONAN: Well, in addition to the strong message sent by arresting this group of Americans, the Haitian government has issued guidelines at this point. As far as I understand it, they've said essentially no child can be taken out of the country without a piece of paper signed by the prime minister.

Ms.�SONTAG: Yeah, I think that might pass over at some point. I mean, there were, you know, adoptions Haiti was open to adoption. There were hundreds of thousands of orphans, I believe, in Haiti before the earthquake, and there were adoptions in process that often took several years, and our government, the American government, put emergency measures in to expedite adoptions that were in the works right after the earthquake happened, and Haiti was cooperating with that.

I don't know if this means that those adoptions in process are to be frozen.

CONAN: Well, we're going to have to leave that in train because there's a limited amount of information that you and I have on this, but let's go on to that broader subject of Haiti's children.

In your reporting you note that almost half of the population of the country of Haiti is children. Why, in a nation of nine million, would there have been hundreds of thousands of orphans even before the earthquake?

Ms.�SONTAG: The life expectancy is not great. Families break up. Families get displaced. There was a lot of movement into the cities.

You know, I don't know the complete statistic on the number of orphans, but there were you know, this was a poor country with a lot of problems, problems of outcomes of poverty.

So many kids living in orphanages had maybe one parent who could not care for them, relatives where situations broke down, parents who were in the Dominican Republic working. So...

CONAN: And you also talked about concerns of organizations like UNICEF for, well, conditions that were bad to begin with made disastrously worse by this crisis.

Ms.�SONTAG: Yes. I mean, you know, the orphanages themselves, which did, you know, some better and not so well, you know, look after kids, many of them were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. Many children were killed. Many children were injured, and you know, now that people are figuring out which kids don't have anyone able to take care of them, they're trying to, community by community, they're trying to figure out what to do with these kids.

And you know, the logical place is to bring them to what remains of the orphanage structure there, and international organizations are setting up some what they call safe spaces, which are basically tents, and they're trying to register the kids large tents - and they're trying to register the kids so that they can trace their relatives and reunite them with their families, if in fact they're just separated from their families.

CONAN: A story you did for the Times from Haiti said this was a system they adopted in Ache after the tsunami.

Ms.�SONTAG: Yes, and they said it was quite successful there.

CONAN: So there's some prospect. Are all these groups working together, these various different agencies, UNICEF and Save the Children and all these different groups?

Ms.�SONTAG: Some of them are trying, at the very least. You know, the coordination of all kinds of disaster relief has been coming together slowly, but I think it has been coming together, and there is a lot of there are a lot of organizations on the ground to help children, and you know, hopefully their work will coalesce more and more because the demand is pretty profound.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Deborah Sontag, a correspondent for the New York Times, who's been reporting following the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and the missionary case. She wrote a piece called "Haiti's Children Adrift in the World of Chaos" that was published in the January 26 edition of the New York Times. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Ronelle(ph) is with us on the line from Sumter in South Carolina.

RONELLE (Caller): Hey, how are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

RONELLE: All right. I would like to comment on behalf of those people. I believe they have right motive because I'm from Haiti. I live in this country for 25 years. I would like nothing to happen to them. I think they're just trying to help and they don't understand the culture.

You know, their motive is by their sympathy, you know, and they're just trying to (unintelligible) and I think that's what happened to those people.

CONAN: When you say they didn't understand the Haitian culture, in particular the sensitivity on this point of children?

RONELLE: Well, the government and everything, because I live in South Carolina. There are many people who ask me questions, and they think they can just go to Haiti, just pick from children and bring to the United States. And they feel like they're not doing anything wrong because they are helping.

CONAN: All right, Ronelle, thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

RONELLE: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And as you were suggesting, though, Deborah Sontag, it's hard to believe that anybody who has set up any kind of adoption agency internationally would not know that you need paperwork no matter what the situation.

Ms.�SONTAG: That's right. I mean, after my story ran in the New York Times last week, where I had focused in on the story in particular of one child, I got scores of emails from readers asking if they could have her, you know, saying, you know, could I bring her from Haiti to them. They would like to raise her.

And so I guess there is a feeling at this moment that, you know, love or good intentions will, you know, jump over the structure of regulations that exist.

CONAN: Bureaucracy and paperwork and all the justice system and all of that. Deborah Sontag, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Ms.�SONTAG: Thank you.

CONAN: Deborah Sontag joined us from her desk at the New York Times. And she mentioned a system called restavec. That comes from two French words meaning to stay with, but it has a very different meaning in Haiti.

Joining us now is Katie Paul. She's a reporter for Newsweek magazine and wrote a piece on children in Haiti entitled "Labor Shortage," and she joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms.�KATIE PAUL (Newsweek): Thanks so much.

CONAN: And what does restavec mean in the Haitian context?

Ms.�PAUL: It refers to children who are sent away from home, usually from the rural areas of Haiti, to live with wealthier families in the city, and the idea is that the children will be educated in exchange for performing some domestic labors.

So ideally it would just be chores, but what the system and I should say, this is a very common phenomenon in Caribbean cultures overall, just to this idea of child lending, and it's seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement between families or parents.

But what ends up happening more often than not in especially in the last 20 years or so, is that the kids end up in slums, not in wealthy families, and they're not educated, and it turns into a system of abuse. So restavec is actually a very pejorative term now.

CONAN: So it's almost equivalent of domestic it's a little hard to tell the difference between this and slavery.

Ms.�PAUL: Right. Well, what people argue and make the distinction between this and slavery on is that these kids are not bought and sold in a market as chattel. It is essentially an arrangement between families, and for that reason they're not slaves.

CONAN: More with Katie Paul of Newsweek magazine on the many challenges facing Haiti's children, including those who find themselves labeled as restavecs. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Even before the earthquake, children in Haiti were often forced to grow up fast. Thousands are dragged into trafficking operations every year. Some are forced to work as spies or soldiers for criminal gangs.

More than half of Haiti's population is under the age of 18. Today we're talking about what life is like for kids in Haiti, in the aftermath of the earthquake, of course, but also in broader terms.

Our guest is Katie Paul, a reporter for Newsweek who wrote an article on children in Haiti and the restavec system called "Labor Shortage." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Katie Paul, give us some idea of the magnitude of this restavec situation. How many children are we talking about?

Ms.�PAUL: There was a study done that was published in December, and it was USAID-funded, and it said that they interviewed about 1,500 households, I believe, and extrapolated from that that there are about 225,000 kids in Haiti that were living as restavecs. Aid organizations think that is a conservative figure and estimate that it might be upwards of 300,000.

CONAN: And your piece notes that this system is technically illegal.

Ms.�PAUL: Well, yes, in a sense. The system of child lending is not illegal, and what happens in private households is, you know, very difficult to track.

Human trafficking is certainly illegal. Child abuse is illegal. But when you consider the extent of the governmental dysfunction in Haiti even before the earthquake, it's not something especially when you consider the domestic circumstances of this system, it's not something that they really had the power to do much about.

CONAN: And when the system we obviously have little idea of what's happening to this system at the moment, there's so much chaos in Haiti, but nevertheless, you speculated that maybe it could get better, maybe it could get worse.

Ms.�PAUL: Right, yeah. I spoke to some of the people who had studied the system, you know, really systematically studied it and got their thoughts on what could happen, and what they say is that every time there is some kind of catastrophe, and we should bear in mind that Haiti is no stranger to catastrophe, you see more restavec kids who are just more vulnerable because their parents aren't there to look out for them, and they're not very highly valued as people in the families that they're living with. So they're the first ones to be turned out onto the streets, say, if the family doesn't have the funds to feed them.

So on the one hand, that's a danger. On the other, with this huge demographic shift, there's a possibility that the demand for restavec kids will go down because people are heading out of the city, back into the country.

So maybe people in the country will be less likely to send their kids to the city because they know there isn't anything there for them. The people who are heading out to the country will be less likely to take in kids and put them through this abuse. But you know, the bottom line at the end of all of that is it just might be that there are families who can't afford to feed all of their children and no place for the kids to go, and so I would say that it's more likely that you're going to end up with a lot of street kids.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Richard's on the line from West Palm Beach in Florida.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. My point regarding restavec kids is it's something which is very deep in that society, and it's mostly true because of poverty, and people don't have money to feed their kids, and they keep having a lot of kids, and they hope by sending them to somebody else, in the capital most of the time, or the big cities, that person will take care of their kids.

But that doesn't happen because 90 percent of the time those kids are abused and they don't send those kids to school, and they use them almost as slaves.

CONAN: Richard, let me ask you then, what happens to those kids when they grow up?

RICHARD: At one point, those kids will (unintelligible) and go in the streets and become (unintelligible) for gangs, and that's why you have now you have the gang effect in Haiti. That never existed before.

The best all of that goes back to poverty. This is the best for all bad situations, nothing else, because parents, the kids' parents cannot take care of them for two reasons: They don't have money or poor health. They die early. So those kids are by themselves, and then they end up to somebody else, in somebody else's house, and that person, instead of taking care of those kids properly, they use those kids as slaves.

CONAN: Okay, Richard, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

RICHARD: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: He says 90 percent are abused. That seems an extraordinarily high number.

Ms.�PAUL: You know, I really wouldn't be able to say if it's as high as 90 percent. What the research has found is that in - 30 percent of all households in Haiti had restavec had children present there who were not children...

CONAN: Members of the immediate family.

Ms.�PAUL: Exactly, and so 16 percent of all kids were labeled as restavecs, but they say that it's probably more like 22 percent that were treated like restavecs and just not families who responded to this survey, to this door-to-door survey, were not willing to characterize what they were doing as part of the restavec system.

So how much of that is actual abuse? Again, it's self-reported, and it's...

CONAN: Hard to know.

Ms.�PAUL: ...it's based on a door-to-door survey on domestic situations.

CONAN: Does the survey suggest the restavec name is a pejorative. Does it suggest that they have become an underclass referred to by that name for the rest of their lives?

Ms.�PAUL: You know, I don't know what happens for the rest of their lives, and again, as I said earlier, this is a system that has worsened in the last 20 years or so as the poverty in Haiti has worsened. So the kids aren't ending up with wealthy families who can provide education. They're ending up in slums.

So I don't even know if there's necessarily enough evidence out there to be able to say that, but what I do know is that the kids are usually turned out after the age of 15. So it's very much up to them what to do after that, which I think as the caller indicated, they often do end up on the street and joining gangs.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeanine(ph), Jeanine with us from San Antonio.

JEANINE (Caller): Hi. I'm just wondering - a couple of years ago, a New York Times reporter did a very long article about child trafficking. It was in the New York Times Magazine section of the Sunday paper, and Terry Gross also interviewed him, and it was probably one of the most disturbing things I've ever read.

I mean, it topped the Holocaust. It was really, really awful, and I'm wondering if that's an issue of it was - one of the things he said was that a lot of it was very Eastern European-based and that they would go into countries where there's a lot of poverty and especially deal with these kids on the streets, and I'm wondering if that's a concern.

CONAN: Do you know anything about that, Katie Paul?

Ms.�PAUL: Well, I do know that there is a very big concern about human trafficking in Haiti, and there is human trafficking, and that is illegal, and I think even with what Deborah was talking about with you before, with this particular group, that was a big concern there.

But Haitians would be the first to point out that this is a system that is distinct from that. Are these kids at risk for trafficking? Absolutely, no doubt.

CONAN: The restavecs.

Ms.�PAUL: Right, right, right, especially after a catastrophe like this, where they're out on the street, they're all the more vulnerable. But this system itself is not considered part of that same human trafficking that our caller probably had read about.

CONAN: And Jeanine, according to what I've read I'm certainly no expert, I've never been to Haiti, but according to what I've read, we're talking about a trafficking situation that may involve obviously the numbers are hard to know but thousands of kids every year as opposed to what Katie Paul is talking about - this survey suggests hundreds of thousands in this restavec system.

JEANINE: Right.

CONAN: So thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JEANINE: Thank you.

CONAN: We've also done stories about, well, actual chattel slaves who wind up doing work in the United States, either as domestics or as farm workers in Florida. We've done some work there with our member station in Fort Myers, and there is some evidence that some Haitians wind up there. But again, I would think that the numbers are vastly smaller than the numbers of restavec that we're talking about.

Anyway, let's see if we can get another caller on our line. This is Joseph, Joseph calling us from St.�Paul in Minnesota.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi, I've got a question.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOSEPH: I was wondering if what we can do to make sure that the parents in Haiti are properly equipped to provide for and care for their children, and so hopefully this restavec system will maybe lose prominence. So either in terms of international aid or foreign policy, what can we do to sort of alleviate that situation?

CONAN: Well, Katie Paul, that's a big question.

Ms. PAUL: Yeah, it is an enormous question. I would say first and foremost, you can consider donating to an organization. The organization I talked to that the story of the child that I actually used in my story is Restavec Freedom, and that's affiliated with the Clinton Global Initiative. So you can find information about that online. Obviously you can also donate to something like the Red Cross, which is doing work in Haiti to make sure that people are fed and equipped and that there are tent cities that are properly set up for them.

And then the other point that I would like to make about that is just that there - that two-thirds of these kids are girls, and that's because they're seen as more subservient, easier to control, more likely to do domestic tasks. So that leaves them at risk for sexual abuse obviously as well, which is, from what I understand, not uncommon. So it's important, especially in these camps, that the girls are taken care of, because they're just much more at risk.

So some of the camps are actually setting up areas within the camp that are exclusively for women, just girls, so that they have a safe space to go if they have special needs. And then there are other tricks of the trade, like sending people out to get wood or whatever else they need in groups so that one doesn't disappear...

CONAN: And Katie Paul, you also mentioned in your story a group called the Restavec Foundation?

Ms. PAUL: Yeah. You know, they go by both names. I'm sorry about that. It's Restavec Freedom and the Restavec Foundation, and it's run by a guy named Jean Cadet, who used to be a restavec himself and he's now an adult.

CONAN: And now an adult, so at least he didnt end up in a gang.

Ms. PAUL: That's absolutely right. And he's a very sensitive guy. You can actually see CNN footage of him from a couple of years ago if you Google around for it.

CONAN: Joseph, in terms of the broader issues of foreign policy and reconstructing Haiti, I can refer you to a program we did last week with - among others, Jeffrey Sachs, who is a special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on a lot of issues and on this issue. So if you go back to the NPR Web site and download that podcast to talk about reconstructing Haiti and what's involved in terms of what they might get from international donors, the United States among others, and what might be needed...

JOSEPH: All right. Thank you. I will do that.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Joseph. We're talking about the restavec system in Haiti with Katie Paul, a reporter for Newsweek magazine.

Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Steven(ph). Steven with us from Phoenix.

STEVEN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, Katie.

CONAN: Hi.

Ms. PAUL: Hi.

STEVEN: I went to Africa in 2007 and did a research on child trafficking. It is a mirror image of the restavec situation, where children are placed in contracts and then for a set of years are expected to basically perform duties, various labor duties. Where this becomes an issue of child slavery is when those contracts are altered and when they're altered and backed up with violence, which I believe most of these restavec situations are; that's when you see the issues of human trafficking and child slavery. And I think that Katie maybe missing that point a little bit. I work for a human trafficking organization here in Phoenix and, you know, the issue of trafficking is basically one that's age-old, if not...

CONAN: Sure.

STEVEN: ...buying and selling in terms of chattel...

CONAN: And when you...

STEVEN. ...backing up with violence.

CONAN: When you say contracts, Steven, these are verbal contracts, written contracts?

STEVEN: Most of them are verbal and that's what we found in Africa. And my research with the restavec situation is they are verbal. And for as little as $20 for three to six years, children can be placed. I would point people to Dr. Kevin Bales' work. He's done a substantial amount of work on the restavec, really a kind of phenomenon, and the issue of child slavery. Slavery and human trafficking doesn't require movement, and I think that's a misconception. People can actually be slaves in their hometowns or their home villages.

CONAN: Katie Paul, does that seem to accord with what you know about the situation in Haiti?

Ms. PAUL: Yeah. I'm curious what - who the contracts are written between in the work that you've done.

STEVEN: Well, these are contracts that are basically between families, between - it may not even be a parent or an uncle or an aunt who basically sees an opportunity to unload a child that they can't take care of while maybe making $20 to do so. Ms. PAUL: Mm-hmm.

STEVEN: I don't think that many people may realize what the child is facing, but I think that many of them realize that they may never see them again.

CONAN: Hmm.

STEVEN: The poverty is just so desperate that the slim chance that they have of possibly having a better life for both the family member and the child outweighs really any other recipe theyre thinking of.

CONAN: All right. Steven, thanks very much for the call.

STEVEN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get one last caller in. And this is Nadige(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - from Miami.

NADIGE (Caller): Yes. Hi. It's Nadige.

CONAN: Nadige. Go ahead, please.

NADIGE: I just wanted to make a comment. I'm Haitian myself and I know the problem, the restavec problem is exaggerated. Things got worst in the last 20 or so years. The farmers in Haiti, the people living in the countryside, they used to have things like pigs and goats and things like that. They used to farm the lands. And there was an eradication -the pigs were eradicated in the '80s. Ever since then, these people had nothing else to sustain them because these pigs represented money. You know, they would sell a pig to send a child to school.

CONAN: Sure.

NADIGE: They would sell a pig when a, you know, family member got sick. When they lost these things, they had nothing else going for them. That's when - and the study will show that - that's when these things got out of control and these people started sending, you know, kids to Port-au-Prince and that's why we are in the situation. I think if international community really wants to help Haiti, they need to focus on these people and start investing in these communities outside of Port-au-Prince by giving these...

CONAN: Interesting. You sounded a lot like Jeffery Sachs, who said we need to help the small farmers of Haiti, that's the first step. Nadige, we just have a few seconds left. I wonder, though, are we painting this with two broad a brush? Are there times and circumstances when this system of lending children to better off families can work for both families?

NADIGE: It does. There are times when that works. But the numbers are very minimal, I would say, because it's so it's I think it's gotten out of control. There needs to be more, you know, rules and more regulations. It worked in the past, but now too many poor people are getting restavecs. They themselves can't feed their families and they are...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NADIGE: ...getting these, you know, poor kids and enslaving them.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

NADIGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we'd like to thank Katie Paul for her time today. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. PAUL: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Katie Paul joined us from our bureau in New York. She's a reporter for Newsweek. Her piece on children in Haiti and restavecs is called "Labor Shortage." It appears on Newsweek's Web site on February 1st.

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