Haiti: Child Protection in the Aftermath

Photo Credit: ©UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0025/LeMoyne
UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Cecilie Modvar speaks with children in a makeshift camp in Canapé Vert, a central plaza in the city.

On February 12, 2010—one month after the devastating earthquake struck Haiti—CLACS hosted a talk with Nadine Perrault, UNICEF’s Regional Advisor on Child Protection for Latin America and the Caribbean. Perrault had recently returned from Haiti after being immediately deployed from UNICEF’s Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office in Panama following the earthquake. She discussed the current situation on the ground in Haiti, particularly as it affects children, as well as UNICEF’s role in coordinating efforts for child protection and security, in both the short and long term. She explained that UNICEF is not only responding to immediate needs like food and water, but is leading efforts to identify and protect unaccompanied children from trafficking and to reunite families. Unfortunately, Perrault said that family tracing will be the hardest part of their mission in Haiti, as the task of identifying unaccompanied children is complicated by an assortment of obstacles.

First of all, Perrault stressed the universality of the devastation in Haiti, stating that all classes and institutions were affected: rich, poor, public sector, and private sector. According to UNICEF, an estimated 1.26 million children have been directly affected by the earthquake, and approximately 700,000 of them are school-aged. One of the major reasons for the massive number of unaccompanied children, as Perrault explained, is that when the earthquake occurred at 4:53 PM, many children were already separated from their parents, as many were either in school or at home while parents were at work. To add to the confusion, many children simply ran and followed crowds in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
Compounding the already difficult task of identifying those unaccompanied children is the fact that archives were destroyed and countless identification documents, such as birth certificates, were lost. In some cases, at this time, there is essentially no way to prove a parent-child relationship. Perrault explained that identification will be most difficult for unaccompanied infants and small children, as they don’t know their names or remember where they lived. Furthermore, often times the adult claiming to be responsible for a child is not the child’s parent, but may be another relative, family friend, or neighbor. Perrault stated that such instances are evaluated on a case by case basis to determine whether or not the child should be allowed to go with the non-parental adult. It is not a perfect system by any means, but they are doing the best they can in the given circumstances.
Another complication is the task of ascertaining which of the unaccompanied children are, in fact, orphans. Even before the quake, there were approximately 300,000 children in institutions in Haiti, many of whom were not necessarily orphans. Perrault explained that many parents put their children in institutions if they cannot provide for them at home, and she estimated that there were 50,000 children in those institutions who were truly orphans. It will be even more difficult to know which of the children who were not previously orphaned—within the institutions as well as outside—have become so: countless people have been buried, unidentified, in mass graves.
All of these obstacles combine to open the door to illegal adoptions and child trafficking. One such case, now infamous, is that of the American Baptists from Idaho who were arrested for attempting to transport Haitian children to the Dominican Republic without proper documentation. Unfortunately, it seems, there are many more instances like this one that go undetected. Perrault cited weak control at the border with the Dominican Republic, due in part to the loss of over two-thirds of the police force, as one of the reasons why trafficking can occur with apparent ease. Additionally, Haiti was already a major site for drug trafficking, and similar clandestine movements and methods of conducting illegal activity undetected are being used for child trafficking.
In the face of such great challenges, UNICEF’s mission will continue to focus on identifying
children and finding ways to reunite them with family members when possible. UNICEF is coordinating other NGOs, including Save the Children and World Vision, in the mission of child protection. They are working to establish shelters and child-friendly spaces to protect vulnerable children in Haiti, with clusters of NGOs cooperating in the Dominican Republic as well. Perrault mentioned that they are drafting plans to set up foster families for orphaned children in Haiti, as many parents lost their children and are willing to take in others. There will be a UN conference in March or April to discuss further plans.
The event ended at 4:53 PM, precisely the time the earthquake struck Haiti one month before, with a moment of silence.
Lee Evans, MA Candidate, CLACS

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