Perception vs. Reality - Haiti Orphans
Updated: May 2
I remember my first trip to Haiti. 10 years ago this month, I was returning from my first 10 day trip to Haiti. Preparing for that trip was exciting. When I arrived, I found something entirely different than what I had been expecting. I found joyful people whose smiles lit the room and hospitality was unmatched. Even through the language barrier, they would smile and ask if I was a Christian. They wanted to make sure I knew who Jesus was. But wait, wasn't that supposed to be my job?
One afternoon, we walked to the edge of town and up a steep hill to a two story house. Inside, we found 60 children dressed and sitting quietly, waiting for our arrival. As our group of 14 white people invaded their home, the children sat, a little shy and checked us out. Then, one of the older children led the rest in singing for us. The sweet sound of 60 little Haitian children singing "This is the day that the Lord has made!" and "I've got the JOY, JOY, JOY, JOY down in my heart!" After the children were finished singing, we received a tour of the space and realized that this woman had graciously taken in these orphans even though they had no running water, no electricity and one "toilet" for 60 children. Our hearts were broken as we left and headed back to the guesthouse. We put together what money we had left after our trip was finished and gave it to the orphanage to buy food for the next week.
After visiting a few more times, I later learned that this happened quite regularly at this orphanage. The foreigners would come visit, the children would sing, they would receive money to get through another week. There had to be a better way. Many churches and organizations decided to try to do child sponsorships for the children. That way the orphanage could get a steady income instead of rely week to week on donations from visitors. But what happens when one child gets sponsored and another doesn't? Does that child eat and go to school while the other stays home? Then, you also get unhealthy ownership over children. When we lived in Haiti, I can't count how many times people would say, "This is my little boy, **Johny.**" Or, "Just put one in your suitcase and bring them home to me!"
While I know these people were not entirely serious, they weren't entirely joking either. They believed that it would be better for these children to come live in the United States then stay in the orphanage. And I would have to say I use to agree with them. However, I was naive. I didn't realize that taking a child to the United States would most likely mean taking them away from not only their culture, but a mother or father who loved them fiercely who would do anything to make sure their child didn't go hungry.
An orphan is defined by UNICEF as any child under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents to death. In 2015, there was an estimated 140 million orphans globally. Today, that number has reached an estimated 153 million. From these statistics, there is a misunderstanding of the word orphan. 26 million of the estimated 153 million orphans have lost both parents. This means that the remaining 83% of orphans have at least one parent. While we were working in Haiti, we realized the reality of these numbers. So many orphans become orphans because their parent(s) do not have the resources to feed and educate them. So, they abandon them on the streets or at the door of an orphanage because they know there are better odds that their child will be supported there.
Lumos estimates that the total amount of support to Haitian orphanages exceeds $100 million annually. With figures like that, why would any loving parent who watches their child go to bed hungry every night not try to get them into an orphanage?! Does this mean they don't love or want their child? Absolutely not. Does this mean that an orphanage is the best place for their child? Again I say, absolutely not.
This is exactly what Eustache Arismé, did when he decided to put his two daughters into an orphanage because he could not find work. ’"At first, I was happy to see the children growing up in the orphanage. But now I profoundly regret my decision,” Arismé said. Why? Because his two daughters, Nedjie, 4, and Vanise, 3, died in a fire at the orphanage, along with 11 other children and 2 caretakers in February of this year. The cause of the fire is said to have been candles that were burning for light in the house at night because there was no electricity. This coming from a church that reported revenue of $6.6 million and claimed to donate half of its profits to the church’s mission work in Haiti. After working in Haiti, I know that generators and solar power and batteries can be expensive. But we worked with a minuscule budget compared to theirs and were still able to keep constant electricity. There is no excuse.
Parents said the same church offered to pay just $50 to $100 in family compensation — along with $150 for funeral-related costs such as new clothes and transportation. Personally helping to plan funerals in Haiti, they can reach upwards of $1500-$2000.
"Tania Caristan makes a living selling items on the street and washing neighbors’ clothes. She moved back in with her parents, and said she had to leave baby Ricardo with her estranged husband. It was only two months later that she learned her former husband had put the boy in a Church of Bible Understanding home. Shocked, she went there with a copy of the birth certificate to get her baby back. But a white man told her through an interpreter that she couldn’t take him because she was not one of the people who had given him to the orphanage, she said. “I tried everything I could to convince the person in charge at the orphanage,” she said quietly, as she watched her younger daughter play outside their shack. “I cried bitterly.” A security guard opened the gate and asked her to leave. One of her sisters later tried to get the boy back but also failed. But Caristan never lost hope. She always thought she would see her son again one day. She never did." Ricardo, age 6, died in the fire that night in February. (AP News)
Of the approximately 30,000 children in orphanages in Haiti, the Government of Haiti estimates that 80 percent have one or two living parents who could care for them at home or in another family setting, if properly supported. One study reports that a single grant of $220 can help a poor Haitian family maintain a child in acceptable conditions at home. Only 15 percent of the over 700 Haitian orphanages are officially registered with the government. At least 140 are believed to have extremely detrimental living conditions where children are at severe risk of violence, exploitation, abuse, neglect, and avoidable death. (LUMOS) Regardless of a child’s perceived orphanhood status, institutionalization is never in the best interest of a child. Even with the best quality care in an orphanage, young adults struggle to live independently upon leaving care, facing unemployment, lack of housing, and are often unable to afford to finish school.
So how do we help? Here are some recommendations from LUMOS.
To donors currently, or thinking of, funding orphanages:
Ensure that partner orphanages are not involved in harmful or illegal practices, and that funding and other forms of support are not mismanaged by developing oversight mechanisms.
Support the transition away from orphanages to the provision of community-based services to make it possible for children in the orphanages to live in families.
Research the needs of local communities, talk to experts, and redirect funds to orphan prevention programs, including family preservation and community development programs.
Promote within communities and churches understanding that children should be in families, not orphanages, and that funds could be better spent on preventing the separation of children from their families.
To volunteers and mission trips participants:
Do not take part in short-term volunteering or mission trip visits to orphanages, which are harmful to child development.
Research and find an ethical volunteering agency that provides opportunities in community development and family preservation programs.
Consider ending a volunteer placement when concerned about harmful practices, and contact the relevant authorities or ask advice from organizations working locally on family preservation or community development
Vulnerable Haitian families need support to care for their children. Look into supporting organizations that offer services that include vocational and other educational trainings for parents; business development; inclusive education and support to families with disabilities; programs for new mothers; and other health and service organizations to reach communities in need.
"It is unsurprising that many donors to orphanages in Haiti are Christian; the core tenets of their faith commits them to supporting vulnerable populations – ‘to look after orphans and widows’ James 1:27. While orphanages are still perceived to be a viable option to support vulnerable children, a number of Christian organizations – including ACCI Missions and Relief, Bethany Global, CRS, and the Faith to Action Initiative, among others – promote family preservation and orphan prevention through their interpretation of scripture. In its manual on protecting children in short-term missions, ACCI sets forth that “every child deserves the opportunity to be raised in a loving permanent family; ‘God sets the lonely in families’ Psalm 68:6.” This investigation highlights the vast and, for the most part, well-intentioned drive to support children in need, and suggests the possibility of transforming that funding for better outcomes for children. With a concerted effort and awareness raising, faith-based funders and other religious actors could more efficiently and safely support children within their families than the model of orphanages. Given a tradition of commitment to children’s issues, the impact of a change in faith-based support to alternative care could be immense and long-lasting.
If you would like more information about this topic, please consider reading the full LUMOS Report.
We have got to do better. Don't just give. Give wisely. Know where your money is going. Ask questions. Get involved. Keep your organizations accountable. Make sure they're operating legally in the country. Make sure they have a plan for the future. Does that plan look the same 5 years from now? 10 years? It shouldn't. We are personally still financially supporting the Children's Village where we worked for three years. We do this because we believe that the vision for this orphanage is heading in the right direction. They are doing more to help families stay together - offering free education and one meal a day to children who would not be able to attend school otherwise. The Jesus Home for Children of La Gonave is also legally registered with the Haitian government and has a Social Worker who visits quarterly to check in on the children. Mme. Soliette, the founder of this same orphanage I visited in 2010 has also reunited many children with parents once they are able to take better care of their children. Pulling all support is not the answer. But, these institutions should have a plan in place to do their best to reunite the children with their families as soon as possible.
Be a part of the solution, don't feed the problem. It can take more effort, but the lives you're impacting are worth it. I promise.