Separated families still being reunited one year after Haiti’s earthquake - IRC press release
Every week, aid groups in Haiti continue to reunite separated children with parents and relatives, but thousands of other children remain in precarious circumstances -— a situation that underscores the critical need for regulated and improved family placement services.
In the chaos of the earthquake last January, families scattered and children became separated. Most had no way of contacting loved ones or knowing if their family members were dead or alive. Thousands of children were taken in and cared for by compassionate neighbors and strangers, others were placed in orphanages, and many ended up in the streets.
In the days after the earthquake, a multi-agency effort, co-led by the International Rescue Committee, divided up districts, set up a database, trained caseworkers and community organizations, and began working with the Haitian government to identify and register separated children.
“Over 250 case workers, including 30 from the IRC, have scoured camps and neighborhoods across the country and followed every possible clue to locate living parents and extended family,” says Jennifer Morgan, who oversees the IRC’s family tracing and reunification program. “A year of intense detective work has led to the reunion of more than 1,300 children with relatives. Considering the challenges, it’s a remarkably high number.”
In the year ahead, the IRC plans to continue family tracing and reunification for earthquake-separated children, but will be expanding services to assist other vulnerable children and families struggling to support them.
As of today, 3,785 earthquake-separated children remain in the multi-agency registry. Yet they represent a fraction of Haitian children separated from their families. Prior to the quake, an estimated 50,000 children were living in over 600 orphanages and many were placed there by impoverished parents unable to provide for them.
“Too many of these facilities are unregulated, unlicensed and sub-standard,” says Morgan. “They are often run like businesses and the best interests of children come last.”
There are also an estimated 225,000 “restaveks” in Haiti— children sent by destitute rural parents to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthier urban families in exchange for housing and school fees. Unfortunately, there’s a long history of child abuse, exploitation and neglect by many of these unscreened host families.
“We’re concerned that since the earthquake, even more desperate parents have institutionalized their children or sent them into domestic servitude because they can’t care for them,” says Morgan.
The IRC urges the international community to support the Haitian government and fund programs that deinstitutionalize children, give vulnerable families the means to earn a living and keep their children, and develop interim and long-term family care programs when reunification is not an option.
“The thousands of kind-hearted Haitians who took children into their homes after the quake have been caring for them ever since without support or guidance,” says Morgan. “There are many other potential caregivers who would do the same if provided modest assistance. What’s needed is a formal and regulated system to identify, screen, monitor and support these families.”
Seeing this as a critical gap, the IRC launched a pilot project with the organization Zanmi Timoun, in coordination with Haitian authorities, to select and carefully vet willing, capable and nurturing parents who can welcome orphaned or separated children into their families. The caregivers receive IRC training, basic supplies and other assistance. The project is still in its early stages, but already shows promise. In time, IRC hopes the project will transition into a government-run family care program carried out by a network of trained social workers.
From lessons learned responding to emergencies around the word, the IRC strongly believes that the healthiest and safest option for separated children is reunification with parents or relatives, or long-term placement with caregivers in a familiar community and culture. Foreign adoption may ultimately be the best option for many Haitian children once family tracing and other efforts are exhausted, but only after Haiti reforms its adoption policies.
Haiti’s government has pledged to ratify the Hague Convention on Adoption, which would be a major step forward. The convention recognizes foreign adoptions as a good alternative when a suitable family cannot be found locally. It sets standards on how inter-country adoptions must be conducted in order to prevent trafficking and ensure that adoption is in a child’s best interest. It also requires informed consent by legal guardians, an important policy in a country like Haiti where multitudes of children in orphanages are not orphans.
For all scenarios, the IRC is advocating the establishment of a “Best Interest Determination” process. This would involve a multi-disciplinary panel of government, social welfare and other representatives to determine what’s best for each child, whether it be placement with extended family, national adoption or international adoption.
“While the massive reconstruction effort focuses on rebuilding Haiti’s shattered infrastructure, the IRC firmly believes an investment in children and families is fundamental to the country’s recovery,” says Morgan. “Haiti cannot recover unless its families recover.”
About the IRC’s programs in Haiti: The IRC launched programs in Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. In addition to reunifying separated families, IRC teams focus on mobile medical services, construction of latrines, showers and washing stations, health and hygiene promotion, cholera treatment and prevention, job creation, special aid, protection and distributions for women, and learning and recreational programs for children.
About the International Rescue Committee: A global leader in humanitarian assistance, the International Rescue Committee works in more than 40 countries offering help and hope to refugees and others impacted by violent conflict and disaster. During crises, IRC teams provide health care, shelter, clean water, sanitation, learning programs for children and special aid for women. As emergencies subside, the IRC stays to revive livelihoods and help shattered communities recover and rebuild. Every year, the IRC also helps resettle thousands of refugees admitted into the United States. A tireless advocate for the most vulnerable, the IRC is committed to restoring hope, dignity and opportunity. Visit RESCUE.org for more information.
Susana Ferreira (Port-au-Prince)
Lucy Carrigan (New York)
Melissa Winkler (New York)