A young boy plays with stones earlier this week at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. He was among the group of 33 Haitian children that 10 American church workers tried to take across the border into the Dominican Republic.
A young boy plays with stones earlier this week at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. He was among the group of 33 Haitian children that 10 American church workers tried to take across the border into the Dominican Republic. Andres Leighton/AP
Even as 10 Americans were charged Thursday with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti, aid agencies said the primary risk facing Haitian children comes from a generations-old practice that allows parents to put their children into domestic servitude.
Lisa Laumann, a child protection expert at Save the Children, said Haitian children face an increased risk of victimization because of the widespread acceptance — and legality — of the restavek system, in which parents give their children away as a means of coping with devastating poverty. She said aid workers are less worried about cross-border trafficking, but she did not comment on the case involving the American missionaries.
"As families are facing continued serious economic situations, I think it would not be unlikely that people would be going to more and more desperate strategies," Laumann said. "It [restavek] would be an economic option for families as they are facing continued, serious economic situations."
Over the weekend, Haitian authorities arrested the 10 Americans, who were trying to take the children across Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic. Officials accused members of the Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission of child trafficking, but the Baptist group said they were taking the youngsters to a place where they could receive better care.
Late Thursday, the missionaries were charged with child kidnapping and criminal association, said Haitian defense attorney Edwin Coq. Coq said a Haitian prosecutor told him the Americans were charged because they had the children in their possession as they headed across the border. Under Haiti's legal system, there won't be an open trial. A judge will consider the evidence and render a decision in a process that could take as long as three months.
But at least some parents of the 33 children said they gave their children to American missionaries, who promised that the youngsters would have better lives.
"I am living in a tent with a friend," said Laurentius Lelly, a 27-year-old computer technician who gave up his 4- and 6-year-old children. "My main concern is that if the kids come back, I'm not going to be able to feed them."
No Laws Against Trafficking
According to the U.S. State Department, there is reason for concern about trafficking in Haiti. The Western Hemisphere's poorest country, Haiti has long been a source of adults and children who are trafficked for domestic servitude, agriculture and construction work, and prostitution.
Residents of the mountain village of Callebas, Haiti – including Melanie Augustin (left) and Sorianta Leantus (second from right) – said parents willingly handed over 20 children to American missionaries who promised the youngsters a better life.
Residents of the mountain village of Callebas, Haiti – including Melanie Augustin (left) and Sorianta Leantus (second from right) – said parents willingly handed over 20 children to American missionaries who promised the youngsters a better life. Ariana Cubillos/AP
And the problem is compounded because Haiti has no laws to prevent it, according to the State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Before a massive earthquake further devastated the country, about 300,000 Haitian children were restaveks, said David Fatherree, spokesman of the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Foundation.
Now, the organization — which has worked to provide relief and educational opportunities to restavek children since 2007 — is raising concerns that the restavek population could spike because of the quake.
"Desperation leads parents to sending their children into servitude," said Joan Conn, director of the foundation. "It has been proven that trafficking goes up after natural disasters in poor countries. These natural disasters create more economic hardship and desperation for parents, and numbers of restavek children have gone up as a result."
Fatherree said impoverished families often believe their children will have better lives and access to education if they are restaveks, but that rarely happens. More often, children are subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Fatherree also fears restavek children may be trafficked a second time — if they're abandoned by the families they've served, they may be more vulnerable to traffickers for purposes of illegal adoption or sexual exploitation.
"Host families are abandoning these children. They are another mouth to feed. They may be injured," Fatherree said.
The United Nations children's agency UNICEF confirmed that that fear has become a reality. One restavek girl showed up last week at a field hospital near the airport in the ruined Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, according to UNICEF's Tamar Hahn.
Hahn wrote in her field diary, posted on UNICEF's Web site, that the 9-year-old was drawing water from a community well when the earthquake struck. A slab of falling concrete broke her arm, causing the family she worked for to take her to the hospital and leave her there.
After being treated, the girl begged hospital workers to take her back to the village where she was born. "If you take me there, I could recognize my house. I just want to go home," she told them. Hahn said the girl reported that her mother was dead, but she thought her father was still alive.
Restavek is a Creole word meaning "stay with." Restavek children, usually between ages 5 and 15, stay with a "host" family, for whom they prepare meals and perform household chores.
They are not paid, and they are not allowed to see their birth families. They rarely attend school, and many times they do not get enough to eat, according to the restavek foundation. Most restaveks are dismissed at age 15 because Haitian labor laws require that they be paid at that age.
Aid Agencies Press For Options
Laumann, of Save the Children, said child aid agencies are working with the Haitian government to implement social and educational support systems that would give families options to the restavek system.
In addition, the State Department is supporting efforts by Haiti's Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to revise Haitian law to prohibit human trafficking.
In September, the Clinton Global Initiative also set its sights on ending human trafficking and the restavek system. Partnering with the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Foundation, the initiative aims to develop a program that will protect restavek children and raise national awareness about the impact that the restavek system has on the country's future.
For now, Conn said it's imperative that Haiti officials, adoption agencies and relief workers remain alert to prevent trafficking.
"Borders need to be monitored, at least for vehicles leaving Haiti into the DR [Dominican Republic] right now. I know they lifted import restrictions at the border in order to get much-needed humanitarian aid into Haiti quickly, but cars should not be driving across the border freely," Conn said.
But in the long term, Conn said authorities and international agencies should look toward improving social supports for Haitian families — employment opportunities, agricultural changes and access to free primary education — that extend beyond the relief effort.
"If relief efforts made are coordinated within a sustainable vision for development of Haiti, then all of Haiti's children will benefit by the dignity offered their parents to raise their own children at home," Conn said.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.