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Haiti is a country of children. Half the population there is under 18. And since the earthquake, kids are everywhere - carrying water buckets, pushing wheelbarrows full of rubble, and playing with homemade toy cars amid the tents that are now home.

NPR's Debbie Elliott takes a closer look at life for the thousands of children who have found themselves alone after the quake. She begins with one group of boys.

(Soundbite of rap song)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: These teenage boys are huddled around a radio listening to Creole rap. They're unrelated but have formed a brotherhood in the disaster. Five of them, including 16-year-old Luckson, are living without shelter or adult supervision in a park near the airport road in Port-au-Prince.

LUCKSON: (Through translator) After the earthquake, all of us came here to sleep. Then because we were staying all together to sleep, then we meet each other and that's why we came together.

ELLIOTT: Their homes and neighborhoods collapsed.

LUCKSON: (Through translator) All my family died. Me, I heard they are somewhere, but I don't know the place.

ELLIOTT: The boys do odd jobs to earn money, like fixing cars that break down on the way to the airport. Sixteen-year-old Jean says they share food and try to survive with what little they have.

JEAN: (Through translator) Since the earthquake, we have been using, like, those clothes that we are having on. We wash them and then we pull them and put them on.

ELLIOTT: The U.N. Children's Fund estimates that more than 20,000 children lost their parents in the earthquake. Many are being cared for by relatives or neighbors, but others, like these boys, are alone.

Humanitarian groups are working to track them and reunite families when possible. Each child is entered into a searchable database with information about where they used to live and whether they have relatives in the countryside.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLIOTT: Late on a Friday afternoon, a team of social workers comes to register the boys. They take photographs and say they'll be back Monday morning to take them to an orphanage, where they will be cared for and able to resume their studies until caregivers can be found.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLIOTT: UNICEF officials say they've registered 300 children so far and reunited about a dozen families. It takes detective work, says Marie de la Soudiere, coordinator of UNICEF's separated children fund in Haiti.

Until caregivers are found, the agency tries to place kids in orphanages or designated child-safe tents in the spontaneous camps where earthquake victims have settled. Soudiere says there is danger in the chaos of disaster.

Ms. MARIE DE LA SOUDIERE (UNICEF): Two things happen. A) you can take children that are lost, and nobody will even find you. And B) you can easily take advantage of desperate parents who don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, because their lack of knowledge that aid is coming and it's there. If they really know how to get it, then they just say take my child.

ELLIOTT: Even before the earthquake, there were more than 300,000 orphans in Haiti - many of them given up by destitute parents, and in the worst cases handed over to wealthy families as servants, known as restaveks in Creole.

Since the earthquake, the government has tightened its watch on child trafficking and temporarily halted adoptions.

Ms. CARYL STERN (UNICEF): No one has the right to take a child out of this country.

ELLIOTT: Caryl Stern is the president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

Ms. STERN: And you hear frequently in the States, especially, well, but we can provide for them so much better. Where do you draw that line then? You know, so this summer, when it's really hot and the kids in the ghetto or neighborhoods who don't have air conditioning, are we going to pluck those kids and take them to parents who have air conditioning 'cause they can provide for them better? No one has the right to decide where a child should be except that child's family.

Ms. DIXIE BICKEL: In a perfect world, yes, UNICEF, I would love to see international adoptions stopped. I would love to see Haitians take in and adopt a child without making it a slave in their home.

ELLIOTT: Dixie Bickel, an American who has lived in Haiti since 1991, runs God's Littlest Angels, an orphanage about 45 minutes outside Port-au-Prince.

(Soundbite of children playing)

ELLIOTT: There are about 60 children staying here now, mostly infants and toddlers she's taken in from other orphanages that were destroyed. Bickel is frustrated by what she sees as hostility toward orphanages like hers.

Ms. BICKEL: Nobody says a thing because mothers give up their kids in the U.S., because we know they can't take care of their kids. But in Haiti, it's made to look like it's an illegal trafficking situation because the mother says I would rather give up my baby than see it die in my arms.

ELLIOTT: Bickel says until the cultural system in Haiti changes to support families with children, institutions like hers are crucial.

Some U.S. senators, including Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, believe the influx of international aid after the earthquake provides an opportunity to build a modern child welfare system in Haiti.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): The problem is there's no safety net of support services in Haiti, to my understanding, today. And it causes many parents to want to or to be forced to or encouraged to abandon their children.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLIOTT: On Monday morning, the teenage boys are up early, backpacks on, waiting for the social workers to return for them.

STEVE: (Unintelligible) thank you.

ELLIOTT: A boy named Steve sings: it makes me so happy that I have a chance today. He says the group wants to get back to school so they will have a future.

STEVE: (Through translator) Me, what I would like is, like, every one of us have something to do. Like, if this one could be an engineer, this one could be a doctor, it will be great. Everybody could live.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLIOTT: The social workers arrive late and come with bad news.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLIOTT: The orphanage won't take the boys because they're too old. The social workers say the plan now is to give them a tent in one of the settlement camps throughout the city.

The smile fades from Luckson's face. He doesn't like the idea.

LUCKSON: (Through translator) We will always stay there until we find someone that is not lying so they can help us really.

ELLIOTT: I'm not happy, he says, and sits down on one of the brick garden walls that have been his home since January 12. In his pocket, a folded piece of notebook paper, with a poem neatly written in English.

LUCKSON: (Through translator) My name is Luckson, I'm sixteen years old, my mother and my father die. I don't have no one to help me. I don't have nobody in Haiti. I'm sleeping in the street. My sister and my brother die. Please let me go with you.

ELLIOTT: I need adoption, he writes. Please help me.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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