• Poverty, “Orphans,” and Parents

    Susan P. Whit | December 6, 2012.

    Yesterday’s New York Times features an article, “Trying to Close Orphanages Where Many Aren’t Orphans at All,” about the plight of impoverished children in Haiti and the government’s intention to reduce the use of orphanages. To most Americans, the term “orphan” means a child with no parents, however that’s not the way the term is used in the world of international relief. A child who has lost one parent is considered, in aid lingo, an “orphan.” And as the Times article points out, in severely impoverished nations like Haiti, where 80% of the population lives below the poverty line (60% in abject poverty), orphans are created when parents despair of being able to feed and educate their children.

    The high incidence of rape, lack of birth control, and the lack of economic opportunity means that many Haitian children are born to single mothers and cared for by their extended families. However, the 2012 earthquake killed or injured parents, separated them from their children, and demolished their homes. It also destroyed whatever systems adults had for keeping the pieces of their lives together. Cassandra, a four-year-old living with her mother in my neighborhood tent city, roused the neighbors with her crying one morning. She had awakened to find her mother gone, abandoning her to the care of passers by. The authorities were called but the mother was never found; relatives took the child in. After the earthquake gangs of street children roamed through Jacmel, clinging together in the absence of other caretakers. I saw them sleeping en masse under trees at the side of the road.

    There’s money to be made from orphans. They are frequently exploited because they attract aid money, donations from kind-hearted foreigners, and the contributions of desperate parents. I’ve seen orphanages that were hell-holes: semi-naked children crammed into airless sheds, underfed, diseased and living without sanitation. Their parents – single mothers or fathers widowed when their wives died in childbirth or of disease – lived in displaced persons camps and worked in the city. They were simply unable to care for their offspring. Paid pittances themselves, they gave tiny sums to these “orphanages” to take their children in. I met a few mothers stopping by occasionally to see their toddlers. But even better equipped orphanages practiced another kind of heartlessness: children imprisoned in sterile cribs, neglected by the staff with the tills.

    By contrast, Tiny Hands and Feet is a beautifully orphanage run by American missionaries in Jacmel. One of their workers found what appeared to be a dead baby on the doorstep. Wrapped in a rag was a starving, ashen newborn. Inquiries in the neighborhood revealed that a young woman was left destitute with a newborn infant when her husband died suddenly of cholera. She drifted from the house of one friend after another, sleeping on the floor until she wore out her welcome. Starving and thirsty herself, she had no milk for the child and knew it would soon die. The orphanage seemed the only way to save it: in fact, it saved them both. The staff at Tiny Hands and Feet invited her to stay, nurse her infant, and earn her keep caring for other babies. I saw her sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, nourished, nursing, and grateful for help.

    But not many parents are so lucky. Child slavery – legal in Haiti – is another option for the severely impoverished. They indenture their children as servants to wealthier households in the hope that they will be fed. Those children rarely receive an education but neither do they starve. They get enough food to be productive until they reach their teens, at which time they are released, illiterate, to fend for themselves.

    Knowing how poverty destroys families and results in the abuse of children, our Haitian partners were determined to find ways to help parents keep their children. That is why we have a feeding program and provide emergency food kits during food crises. If parents know their children will be fed, they allow them to participate in our educational programs. And if their children bring food for whole family, their position in that family becomes more secure. The temptation to remove kids from school to make them work is less acute. Eventually even illiterate parents come to understand that the more education their children have, the better their chances for survival. Every year of school improves people’s opportunities to support themselves. Haitian parents want their children to have better futures just like we do. HEI can only make small inroads into the heartbreaking conditions in Haiti but every child fed, schooled, and secure for another year is a source of hope. Thanks to our donors and our Haitian partners, 120 children in Jacmel are better off.