Haiti grapples with task of helping its vulnerable children

Pastor Jeannes Pierre 61, walks with his foster daughter, Franchina 11, after Mass at Baptist church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Sunday, July 1, 2018. "There's a certain satisfaction to it," said Jeannes Pierre, 61, about being a foster parent. "It's doing something extraordinary." (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, left, eats lunch with her foster family, Pastor Jeannes Pierre and his daughter Jenny Pierre in their home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Saturday, June 30, 2018. The Pierres do not know how long Franchina might stay with them, given uncertainty about her father's status. "We want to keep her as long as possible," Pierre said. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
A staff member escorts orphan children to go out to play at the Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, June 28, 2018. In Haiti, the plan is to build a foster care system exclusively with parents willing to take on the task at their own expense. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Orphan children sit in their beds at the Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, June 28, 2018. UNICEF estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the children in orphanages have one or two living parents. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, plays with a cat named Mima at her foster home with the Pierre family in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Friday, June 29, 2018. Her mother dead, her father in prison, Franchina was placed in a state-run orphanage as a toddler, remaining illiterate year after year and seemingly destined for a hard life in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
This June 30, 2018 photo shows the Isme family in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that is participating in the government's new program to establish a nationwide foster-care system. At center is 10-year-old foster child Michelene, who joined the family two and a half years ago after growing up in an orphanage. At left is her foster father, Ezekial Isme, and 2-year-old brother Erven. At right is her foster mother, Guerna and 1-year-old brother Calvin. "She's our girl _ she feels at home with us," Ezekial Isme said. "Our hearts have already adopted her." (AP Photo/David Crary)
Nest of Hope orphanage Director Dallye Telemaque Bernard, points to pictures of children adopted from the orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, June 28, 2018. She oversees the care of about 50 children, ranging in ages from 5 months to 13 years. Some are brought in by government social workers, or by police who find them in the streets. But most are dropped off by their impoverished parents. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, first row second from right, attends Mass with her foster family at a Baptist church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Sunday, July 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, helps her foster mother, Nelia Pierre, close the gate to their home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti as they head to church on Sunday, July 1, 2018. Over the years, the Pierres have provided a temporary home to other children on an informal basis. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, decides on a graduation ceremony dress in her bedroom at her foster parents' home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Saturday, June 30, 2018. In her orphanage, she shared a bunkroom with many other children. Now Franchina has a bedroom to herself. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, runs past younger children playing on a swing set after church with her foster parents in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 1, 2018. Asked what she likes best about her new life, at first she was too shy to respond. Then she confided: "I like everything." (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
An orphan boy jumps rope at the Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, June 28, 2018. A new program is cited by Haitian and foreign experts as evidence of the government's determination to modernize and strengthen an array of child-oriented policies and practices _ and lessen reliance on foreign-based charities and mission groups. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Orphan children draw with colored pencils at the Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Roughly a quarter of Haiti's children have spent much of their life without parents. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Kenia Tunis, 23, cries during a visit to the Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thurdsay, June 28, 2018, while looking at pictures of her child who was adopted a year earlier. The resident of the Cite Soleil slum placed her son in the orphanage six years ago when he was 2. He was adopted by a family in France in 2017, and she expressed hope that she might someday see her son again in person. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
An orphan boy stands next to a staircase while looking out from the Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, June 28, 2018. A new program is cited by Haitian and foreign experts as evidence of the government's determination to modernize and strengthen an array of child-oriented policies and practices _ and lessen reliance on foreign-based charities and mission groups. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Franchina 11, gets her hair combed by her foster mother Nelia Pierre in their home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Saturday, June 30, 2018. The Pierres taught her how to read within weeks of her arrival at their home. "It's like removing the darkness from the eyes of a child," Jeannes Pierre says. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Like roughly a quarter of Haiti's children, 11-year-old Franchina has spent much of her short life without parents.

Her mother dead, her father in prison, Franchina was placed in a state-run orphanage as a toddler, remaining illiterate year after year and seemingly destined for a hard life in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

But this year, Franchina's fortunes took a hopeful turn.

She has benefited from the newfound resolution of Haiti's government to improve the deplorable status of the country's children, and specifically from a partnership between the state child welfare agency and several international child-service organizations.

In a country and region with no tradition of formal foster-care systems, they are recruiting and training Haitians who buy into the idea that being a foster parent is a noble mission.

"There's a certain satisfaction to it," said Jeannes Pierre, 61, a Baptist pastor in Port-au-Prince who is now Franchina's foster father. "It's doing something extraordinary."

In her orphanage, Franchina shared a bunkroom with many other children. Now she has a bedroom to herself, small and simple but enlivened by a colorful stack of books. To her delight, her foster parents taught her how to read within weeks of her arrival.

"It's like removing the darkness from the eyes of a child," Pierre said.

Many of Haiti's youths live on the streets; hundreds of thousands are domestic workers in other families' homes. Franchina was among about 30,000 consigned to orphanage-like institutions ranging in quality from adequate to abominable.

By itself, foster care won't come close to resolving the plight of Haiti's children. Long-term solutions are needed that for now are beyond the government's financial reach — better educational opportunities and social supports so poor families don't feel compelled to place children in orphanages or domestic servitude in the first place.

But the new program is cited by Haitian and foreign experts as evidence of the government's determination to strengthen child-oriented policies and practices — and lessen reliance on foreign-based charities and mission groups.

"There's no magic bullet, no one solution," said Marc Vincent, who heads UNICEF's operations in Haiti. "But it's important to recognize the steps the government is taking — it is passionate about making things better."

Some of the changes derive from the island's devastating 2010 earthquake, which fueled a surge of international adoptions. Some Haitian children were airlifted to the United States even though they weren't approved for adoption; an Idaho church group leader was prosecuted for trying to take children out of Haiti without authorization.

Such incidents prompted Haitian authorities to sign an international convention setting ethical standards for international adoptions. Regulations were tightened and the number of international adoptions from Haiti fell sharply, from more than 1,300 a year to around 300 or 400.

The child welfare agency — known by its French initials, IBESR — also is trying to beef up oversight of Haiti's roughly 750 orphanages. Most are privately run, operating with little government regulation to rein in abuse and neglect.

IBESR officials say about 400 orphanages are targeted for closure unless they swiftly improve. Large-scale closures will increase pressure on the government to reunify affected children with their biological parents or find foster homes.

"We can't go on placing kids in institutions," said IBESR official Vanel Benjamin. "The answer is family."

UNICEF estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the children in orphanages have one or two living parents. Several organizations are seeking to reunite such children with their biological families, but the work is slow and the orphanage operators — often recipients of donations from well-meaning foreigners — are not always cooperative.

Even at competently run orphanages, heartbreak is the norm, as Dallye Telemaque Bernard, director of the Nest of Hope home in Port-au-Prince, makes clear.

She oversees the care of about 50 children, ranging in ages from 5 months to 13 years.

"Some children come here very sick, from families in very bad economic situations," said Bernard.

Bernard said the babies generally arrive from Port-au-Prince's largest shantytown, Cite Soleil, dropped off by heartbroken mothers.

"It's difficult for them," she said. "But they don't have a choice."

The foster-care program began three years ago in Port-au-Prince and the southern city of Les Cayes. IBESR says it will keep expanding to other regions, with a goal of 200 foster families accredited by year's end.

As the program developed, some advocates for children expressed concerns related to Haiti's huge population of child domestic workers. UNICEF estimates that 400,000 children, called "restaveks" by many Haitians, live away from their parents in households where they perform work on a regular basis in return for lodging and food.

Aspiring foster parents are screened to ensure they're capable of caring for foster children without exploiting them. Once a child is placed, the foster homes are visited regularly by social workers.

In the United States, there's a constant struggle to recruit foster parents even though most are paid hundreds of dollars a month. In Haiti, foster parents are asked to undertake the task at their own expense.

One of the groups recruiting and training foster parents is Bethany Christian Services, a leading U.S. adoption agency. Its recruiting in Haiti focuses on Protestant churches where pastors extol foster-parenting as an act of love.

"People in the churches have responded positively even if they don't have a lot of financial resources," said Vijonet Demero, head of Bethany's Haiti operations. "For them, it's a calling, not a job."

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