Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We hit the ground running!! My visitors have asked to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of Haitian orphanages, and today we will.

Haiti has 67 licensed creches. Creches are specially licensed to perform adoptions. There were also 117 orphanages licensed by IBESR prior to the earthquake. Orphanages are licensed to take, shelter, and care for children. Nobody knows how many unlicensed orphanages there are. 600 in the greater PaP area is a conservative estimate. Licensed child caring facilities are supposed to be inspected and held accountable for the care they provide. I do know that the creches are inspected. I don't know about how often the licensed orphanages are inspected. The unlicensed facilities are accountable to no one, and the care provided varies wildly. Some are luxurious and loving homes that raise children to adulthood and then get them the professional or technical training they need to compete for the few jobs that do exist in Haiti. Others – aren't. Those are the kind we'll go see today.

Happy child at Au Bon Heur
First we visit Au Bon Heur des Enfants, another truly excellent facility. I have a few kids in process here. They live under the watchful eye of our dear friend Sonia Andre and her long-term team of nannies. The kids here are happy, and the baby I've had here since he was four months old remains right on track developmentally. This is another place that most American parents would want to pay for daycare for their children.

Sonia also has a list of children for me to place. There are eight of them, including a sibling set, from ages three months through age five. Sonia works with an German adoption agency, but like me they cannot meet the need for families. The children are suffering due to the refusal of the French and Dutch governments to allow their citizens to adopt from Haiti. It's just ridiculous that we should be going begging for a family for a healthy six month old girl or a three month old boy, but here we are.

Maya interviews Sonia, asking her the same questions she already asked here. I am asked to translate. I can never understand why Sonia only wants to speak Kreyol with me. I believe her English may be better than my Kreyol, but at least she can correct me when I mess up the translation!

Melissa examines a child at Au Bon Heur as she has been requested to do by that child's family. The little girl is physically healthy but appears a bit depressed. The only time anyone has ever seen her outgoing and lively and joyful is with her adoptive mother. I sent this parent here to meet a different child, but she and L. fell in love. I am not going to argue with the little girl's choice. Her immediate attraction to and comfort with this adoptive mother tells us all we need to know. Occasionally, a child will be in the best possible orphanage and will still be unhappy. L. is the sort of little girl who'd be miserable at daycare too. She just doesn't like the level of noise and chaos that is inevitable in any group setting of children, and she never gets to go home with her family after a long day. I am desperate to get her out of here. One of my own daughters was just the same – her sister loved BRESMA so much that she cried from homesickness after coming to the US, but Garline was very unhappy at BRESMA. It just didn't suit her temperament to be there.

We make plans to meet tomorrow at BRESMA for a birthday party and fortified by cups of very strong, sweet coffee, we continue on to our next stop.

Melissa has a commission from another family to examine a child staying at another licensed creche, which I have not visited before. The creche did mostly independent adoptions before the earthquake and is now connected with a number of U.S. agencies who are new to Haitian adoptions. I do know that the facilitators at this creche know how to finish the job, and I encourage the Director to go in and sign the Joint Coucil Standards of Practice now that they can meet them.

There is a noticeably lower level of care here. There is plenty of space at the facility, but the rooms are overcrowded and the toddler room is filthy. There are not enough staff people to care for this number of children and still provide an adequate level of stimulation for the children to remain on track developmentally. Melissa believes that kids from this house might arrive home a bit developmentally delayed, but they'll catch up with their peers shortly. Still, cleanliness is free. I wish there were a bit more of it here.

Funding has obviously been an issue. The children are wearing clothes that my nannies would use only as rags (yes, they are insanely fussy, but still). We are told that the reason there are no mattresses for the older children is because they are having new ones delivered today. But I don't see the old ones anywhere on the property, so I'm a bit skeptical.

I'm not pleased to see that many of the older children's hair is not neatly done. Hair is a huge point of pride in Haiti, and of course styling it is free. However, the older children we meet are inquisitive and appear well fed and energetic. I certainly wouldn't put one of my own kids in daycare here, but I don't think the children here are in any danger. I guess I just feel that if a child has to live deprived of a family for over a year, he deserves to be living in the utmost comfort possible for that time.

We thank the director and go on to pick up C.W and H.W. and their delightful daughter, who will take us to some unregistered orphanages they've found near their rented house. “There's an orphanage on every corner,” C.W. says. He's about right. I've seen quite a few just in the neighborhood around BRESMA. It could be that estimate of 600 in the greater PaP area is too conservative. I'm going to pretend not to be able to speak Kreyol in the hopes that I might overhear something interesting. We have a Haitian translator with us.

Before we go to an orphanage, we stop by a project where a group of men from a KY church are laboring in the sun, building another orphanage. This will be used by a pastor who takes in children. I don't know what sort of care will be provided here, or if an orphanage is a better idea than a daycare center or free school, but I can see that these kind men will be forever changed by their service here in Haiti.

A group of Haitian men and boys sit on the wall watching the blan working with concrete block. They are hoping that someone will change his mind and hire them to do the labor. They are very thin.

Behind the project site is an encampment of windowless plywood shacks with metal roofs. A sign credits the Red Cross, along with a few other organizations, for building them. This 'transitional' settlement has latrines and cisterns. It's paradise compared with the tent camps, but I have no idea what these people might be doing for food or employment.

Beyond the camp, north and up the mountain as far as the eye can see, stretches Obamaville. That's right, Obamaville after the U.S. President. The largest tent camp in Haiti, a ragged collection of tarps and real tents, a few block houses springing up and shacks cobbled together from garbage, Obamaville stretches for miles up the coast north of Port au Prince. The ownership of the land is in question, but it hardly matters. Nobody is hurrying forward to clear the squatters and their tents from the sun-blasted, rocky desert. Nothing lives here but a few brave cactus plants and Haitian families with nowhere else to go. I have no idea what they do for water. The camp was not planned or arranged, so there are no facilities at all. Where ever all that aid money went, it is not here.

Leaving our countymen doing hard time labor at their job site, we continue on to an orphanage also run by a Haitian pastor. Pastor Nickolas lives on a property approximately 1800 square feet in total with 43 children. That's right, 43 children plus staff in the size of a typical four bedroom house, with no yard or playground. The facility also includes a school that neighborhood children's families pay something for education. The schools is conducted under tarpaulin roofs on uneven benches, with additional benches serving as long desks. There are blackboards, but I can't imagine that there are any books or paper.

Children at Nickolas' house
Inside the house is very dark and unbelievably crowded, like a party to which too many people have been invited. The air is thick with the smell of human sweat and overcrowding and a hint of urine from the few young children they have. It feels like every lungful has been used several times before.

They are wearing rags that my nannies wouldn't be willing to use for rags – they'd be thrown away immediately. Most are barefoot, which is culturally something Haitians diligently avoid. The kids appear to be mostly age eight through fourteen or so. All are thin, some are painfully so. One girl in particular looks endangered. I can see her ribs in her back where her shift hangs low off of her skeletal shoulders.

The children cram into a few benches, sitting on eachother's laps, and C.W. and H.W. hand out crackers and cheese for everyone. The children solemnly pass them along to one another. Once everyone has their snack, they pray and eat. All eat with care and manners.

C.W. and H.W. Tell us today is a good day at Pastor Nikolas' house. The two nannies are cooking a meal of beans and rice. Everyone will eat today. Some days, no one does.

The house is located in an area that floods. The first time our guides visited, the back of the property was flooded thigh deep with unclean water. Today is is dry, and the latrine hole outback is below ground level.

At night, the boys' mattresses are laid out on the floor of one room. The girls' are spread in the main room. Everyone arranges themselves carefully, and there is just enough room for everyone to lie down at the same time. Pastor Nikolas lives in a dark room smaller than an American prison cell with a mattress on a platform and a few changes of clothing. This is his home.

Pastor Nikolas tells us he recently had to send about half of his kids off to another orphanage, as his was overcrowded. I cannot begin to imagine how more human beings fit into this space. Quite literally this would never be allowed in an American prison, and these children and their caretakers are guilty of nothing more than being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. He says he wants to shut down this orphanage, but every time he tries, another family begs him to take in their child.

I wonder if the conditions these children lived in with their biological relatives could possibly have been any worse than this. In the tent camps, they would have had more space to move and their own families to comfort them. They are not eating every day where they are now. I wonder if the advantage people think living here will give their children is education? They are all learning how to read. Haitians do value education over everything, including comfort and medicine.

We leave reflective and depressed. Melissa and Maya keep asking me over and over about the number of unlicensed orphanages we did NOT visit. I ask them to imagine Nikolas's house repeated 699 more times in the greater PaP area, and then they might begin to get an idea. But the truth is, there are worse places. Nikolas is not profiteering off of his kids (obviously – he is desperately poor himself) and is was obvious that the nannies loved their charges. None of the children bore marks of physical abuse. There are worse kinds of hell than this, and many of them are located in Haiti.

Next, we proceed to another unlicensed orphanage operated by a man who describes himself as a pastor but also runs two businesses, including a funeral home. He has a house in Petionville, the wealthy neighborhood of the city. The W. family's daughter came from here. They met her on a mission trip, fell in love, and together we've been desperately battling to finish her paperwork and get her home.

Kwashiorkor - protien
deprivation malnutriton
This facility has more ground than we do! It's a large space, perhaps an acre and a half, but located on the coastal lowlands it is entirely covered with round rocks. There is very little built in the space. A few small concrete structures line the low walls and there is one metal building and a concrete pad. The children are all gathered in a back corner of the compound. We are told there are ninety of them who live here, mostly ages five and up. I see five adults, although none of them are near the children. The kids are leading their own prayer and church service, with singing. One boy plays the drum to accompany them. An older girl stands off to the side holding a belt folded in one hand. A few children come up to greet us. I'm still pretending not to speak Kreyol, but I take the opportunity to introduce Melissa to kwashiorkor Haitian style. I have many children to choose from to point out the knee and elbow joints having a greater diameter than upper arms or thighs, the dull matte skin and yellow sclera, and the classic red or yellow fine, thin, dry hair. These kids are suffering protein deprivation starvation. Most of them are not as skeletal as the kids at Nikolas' place.

There are a few children with special needs. H.W. reports one of the two girls in wheelchairs is new. She appears mentally alert and apparently knows a few words of English. I'd love to know her story, but I can't ask without blowing my cover.

H.W. takes us on a tour. The maddening thing here is that with the amount of American support given, the children at this orphanage should be eating a lot better than they are. Their meal today was rice and beans – no meat, no vegetables, and their snack was crackers and juice. That's it. Nothing else but water, all day long.

This facility also operates a school. Neighborhood families pay what we figured out was a total of $700 per year to send children in for a rudimentary education. Compare this with the $300 Margarette and I budget per month for care of each one of our older kids who don't need formula or diapers. Of course the orphanage children also attend class here. I have no way to test if the children are actually learning without asking them directly, but I am curious what quality of education occurs. Haiti is notoriously short of teachers who are themselves educated or trained at all.

Maya and Melissa are horrified at the thought of these children, perhaps as many as 90 of them, being stored here indefinitely. There is no plan for them. In the words of one of my visitors, “They're just )#$^&ed!” I'm not a big fan of bad language, but there are times when there's not much else to say. They are still fighting this mentally. This is my 32nd trip to Haiti, and perhaps I'm becoming jaded. All I feel is depression. I can't do anything for these kids, or the hundreds of thousands like them. All that I can do is make sure that the kids for whom I am directly and personally responsible will never live like this.

Melissa and Maya are excited about doing some fundraising for our two main projects right now – finishing the new orphanage building, and helping the women of Castaches to help themselves. If we can manage it, none of the children of Castaches, nor their children, nor their grandchildren, will even end up in a place like those we've seen today. We'll focus on protection and family preservation, and adoption only when we fail completely.

It's been a long day. I am tired and filthy, and covered in germs from sick children that I must scrub off before I spread them to my own kids at BRESMA tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to offer $20 U.S. to anyone on staff who will bring me the head of the neighbor's rooster.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting about your trip! Wow. I don't have anything particularly profound to say, but although we've never met in person, I do think we may be kindred spirits :)