Monday, May 2, 2011

Life in and After the Orphanage - the Search for an Exit Strategy

Although there is some debate among child welfare workers and advocates about just how imperative it is that no child grow up in an orphanage, there does seem to be a general consensus that there is no such thing as a 'good' orphanage.  Again, there is no such thing as a good orphanage, including ours.  An orphanage is basically a warehouse for children, and children don't develop well in warehouses.

We believe that every child has the right to a permanent family.

But back to reality.  The vast majority of children in orphanages in Haiti (and everywhere else in the world) will live and grow up with no family beyond their caretakers and fellow orphanage residents.  So what can we do to help them develop into healthy, functional, productive adults?  That is what Donna and Claire of Friends of Fort Liberte have joined me this week in Haiti to learn.  We are going to visit a few of the best of the best of Haitian-run orphanages.

Today we visited New Life Link and God's Littlest Angels.  Both are in the Hills above the city, so we started off early to make the reverse commute up into the mountains.  Haiti's mountains in this region are amazingly beautiful, green and cool.  The potential for tourism here someday is fantastic!

This photo is taken from the balcony of Dr. and Mrs. Bernard's guest house/small hotel in Thomasin.  My camera does not do it justice.

The Bernards are Haitian Americans who met in the US and chose to return to their homeland to work.  Dr. Bernard is a licensed attorney.  Over the years he has placed many children with adoptive families and done much aid work for his country.

New Life Link's creche (an orphanage licensed to house children for the purpose of adoption) opened in 1993.  In 1996, they opened an orphanage for older children as well.  The plan was to take in children raise them with love, and have them participate in trade schools which would be a part of the orphanage compound.  However, as the economy continued to deteriorate and they were unable to fund their trade schools, New Life Link decided that their exit plan for the sixty children they had in care was not viable.  Through his extensive connection in Haiti and beyond, Dr. Bernard was able to place all of the children for adoption, in and out of Haiti.

Clair, Donna, and I were all a bit set back that a native Haitian who has proven his resourcefulness, creativity, and intelligence over decades of service in country did not have a viable exit strategy for children aging out of his orphanage.  It was not promising news.  However, he did have some specific advice for my friends.  Dr. Bernard emphasizes the importance of sending all of the young adults to some sort of trade school or for specific professional training.  There are a few jobs in Haiti still, but a high school graduation certificate will not help you to get one of them. 

After our talk with Dr. Bernard, I sent the ladies on to see the kids and finished up a bit of business with Dr. Bernard.  ABI works with several orphanages in Haiti besides our primary partner, BRESMA.  We got everything squared away and then I got to go visit the kids too.

New Life Link's creche building was also destroyed in the earthquake.  None of the children or staff were harmed, which is absolutely miraculous.  Dr. Bernard immediately moved all of the children into his own home where he cannot be separated from them again.  The trauma of being unable to physically reach the children in his care for several days following the earthquake is still very evident in his eyes when he speaks of it.  He will never have his children in a home he cannot walk to again.

If a child can't be with a real family, New Life Link is a very high quality substitute.  The children are clean, healthy, and well-loved.  I think the most encouraging part of the care at New Life Link is not the cool, clean, attractive rooms they live in, nor the toys and playground equipment, nor the pretty clothes and neat hair that all speak of time spent and pride felt in dressing the children.  It is the interaction of children and their nannies.  New Life Link has succeeded in finding paid caretakers who don't just take care of the children assigned to them.  They obviously love them.  We saw lots of smiles, affection, playing, and laughter.  These children are being cared for as best they can be while they wait for their adoptive families.

Clair and Donna are here to explore how to find caretakers who will do more than just the chores involved with child care.  Mrs. Bernard shared some of her interview and training techniques with us, but I think the factors she didn't mention may be a great part of New Life Link's success.  Mrs. Bernard interacts with her nannies as if they were treasured members of a team or a family.  Perhaps her obvious care for their happiness and welfare has trickled down to their behavior with the children.  Love is abundant here.

Next we went to visit God's Littlest Angels, just a few miles away.  Director Dixie Bickel and I have worked on many projects together in Haiti, and she has earned my utmost respect.  John and Dixie Bickel moved to Haiti about 20 years ago.  Dixie is an RN, and her skills have saved many small lives that would surely have been lost otherwise.

GLA has always been a model of orphanage care.  The house has much of the equipment found in a NICU and the staff to use it.  GLA generously takes in and heals children from other orphanages when we have no way to keep them alive.  Teams of volunteers stay for various lengths of time to help provide stimulation and individual attention for the children.  There is even a preschool for the older children.

As GLA houses only young children, and only for adoption, no exit strategies have been planned.  Donna and Clair visited with staff and volunteers while Dixie and I went to her office to discuss the Hague Convention and the pending adoption law.

We chose to stay later at GLA so that I could meet one of my adoptive parents face-to-face.  It seems so strange after working with people so intimately on the most important tasks of their lives that I rarely ever see them in real life!  It was a great pleasure to finally meet this single mother after all this time.  Her son lives at GLA, where he was evacuated from BRESMA after the earthquake.  Dixie allowed us to match him with his mother in May 2010, and he'll be ready to go home very soon.  Generally GLA allows adoptive families to visit only once, for Court, but this parent was so cooperative and easy-going on her last visit that the whole staff agreed to bend their policy just for her because BRESMA visitation policies are different.

After our peaceful dayin the mountains, we descended back into the city.  All was well until we hit Petionville.  As soon as we reached the city, we were locked into impassable gridlock traffic.  Had it not started to pour rain, I would have gotten out and walked the last few miles.  It took us two hours and twenty minutes to make a journey that should have lasted forty-five minutes.  Driver Denis tells me that traffic has been much worse since the earthquake.  There are actually more vehicles on the roads between the UN, Minustah, NGOs, and IGOs, and some of the roads we did have were severely damaged.  I'll need to budget extra time into every trip I make this visit and from now on.  Those motorcycle taxis I see zipping so dangerously through traffic are starting to see very appealing.

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