Even on a good day in Haiti, before the Jan. 12 earthquake changed things forever, thousands of children faced life in orphanages or on the streets, subject to malnutrition and disease, little schooling, gangs or being trafficked into domestic servitude, or worse. 

Now, an undetermined number of Haitian children are homeless or alone, in crisis or medical situations pushing them and the country’s child caretakers and emergency responders to the brink: an estimated 38 percent of the population of Haiti is under the age of 15 and no one knows how many have been recently separated from family or displaced — or taken abroad — as a result of the earthquake. 

“I had two kids that were given to me yesterday, but I recommended them to another friend,” said Jo Lesly Fourcand, a Haitian-American who had established his Children’s House of Hope orphanage last fall, only to see it crash down. “I cannot take anymore children myself until I stabilize my situation and check to see if the house is safe.” 

Ongoing trauma 

After being freed himself from the rubble six hours after the earthquake, Fourcand relocated the children in his care to his private home in the capital Port-au-Prince, where seven youngsters and 10 teenagers are sleeping under a tarp, along with 16 to 20 other families from the area who needed a place to sleep. Some of the children ran away in the confusion of the earthquake and others came in off the street seeking shelter and help. One or two may still be in the rubble. 

Fourcand, whose foot was injured in the collapse, has enlisted nieces, other family and friends to help baby-sit the children, including one boy who was so traumatized he didn’t eat or talk for two weeks after the disaster. They need food, light medical care and new clothes; Fourcand is petitioning for support from a European chapter of Caritas and other aid groups. 

“I don’t have the money to rebuild, and the hard work is still ahead. It’s been chaos and a daily struggle, but I am thankful to be alive,” he said. 

Custody of the church 

Not far away, at an orphanage and school run by the Brothers of the Good Shepherd of Ontario, Canada, the brothers and 78 boys ages 2 to 15 are living outdoors on the playground. During the quake, the group had just gathered in the chapel for Mass; no one was hurt, although the orphanage building, a bakery and a school for 350 children collapsed, and the vehicles were crushed, said Brother Richard MacPhee, executive director of the religious order in Hamilton, Canada. 

The brothers are worried about keeping up food supplies, buying fuel for the generator, resuming school and bracing for a spread of disease, which is on everyone’s minds. None of the orphans here were in the process of adoption, so if they leave the country it will only be for temporary respite; now, on top of all that, the brothers are being asked daily to take in even more children. 

“Traditionally in Haiti it wasn’t uncommon at different points in the country’s history that people would show up for church, leave and there would be a child there,” Brother MacPhee said. “When I spoke to the brothers in Haiti, they said everybody wants us to take kids. Our real challenge will be to find food and room for them.” 

Protecting the children 

On a larger scale, UNICEF and groups like Save the Children and their partners such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are expressing concerns about the protection of Haitian children made especially vulnerable in the aftermath of the disaster.  

“The push is not to do a large-scale resettlement but to protect the kids where they are, reunite families and help them to take care of their kids, especially highly vulnerable groups such as those medical emergencies,” said Mary DeLorey, CRS strategic-issues adviser for Caribbean and Latin America. An estimated 350,000 children lived in orphanages before the quake, and many of those facilities are damaged or destroyed. 

CRS is helping provide material support for existing child-care settings in two regions and is also supporting “child-friendly spaces” within the large refugee cities: a place where lost or homeless children can be identified and registered for family tracing and reunification efforts. Other long-term efforts will likely focus on alternate foster-care arrangements within Haiti to avert an inflow of children into the abusive black market child-labor and trafficking situations. 

“For good reason, the Haitian government is concerned about the overall response and [is] focusing on each child’s situation and finding if there are family,” she said. 

There will also be strains on the rural poor. Reports have detailed how displaced Haitians are migrating back to some of the countryside towns they collectively left over the last few decades in seeking a new life in the capital city. And some of those breadwinners presumably have died, leaving family back in small towns or in Port-au-Prince more vulnerable to migration-related hardships and starvation.  

“What are they going to do now about the issue of children who lost family moving back to the countryside to find extended family?” said Anthony P. Vinciguerra, director of the Center for Justice and Peace at St. Thomas University in Miami, which operates fair-trade coffee-growing and development projects in rural Haiti. Over three years of trips to Haiti, Vinciguerra has seen firsthand how severe poverty in the rural areas can impact lives. He once encountered a grandmother with several children in her care — one boy in particular was visibly famished. 

“They had to choose who would eat, and this one was going to have to die,” Vinciguerra said. “The crazy thing is, that as they explained it, that was normal, and there just wasn’t enough food for everybody. That was during normal times. I can’t imagine how bad it is going to be now.” 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.

Offers of Adoption (sidebar)

After the Haiti earthquake, Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Miami catalogued contact information for families offering to provide foster care or adoption of Haitian children — an outpouring of responses that was later referred to Catholic Charities USA, which handles international adoption. 

But no one is expecting that the Church will orchestrate a large-scale relocation of unaccompanied Haitian minors along the lines of the famous 1960s Pedro Pan relocation of Cuban youth, Richard Turcotte, CEO of Catholic Charities of Miami, told OSV. 

The archdiocese does have space for 80 youths at two facilities in South Florida and has offered that to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the event of a large-scale evacuation. But the emphasis now is to help government and relief agencies focus on in-country solutions. 

A joint statement from the U.S. bishops and other international Catholic agencies calls for Haiti-based child safe havens; assignment of child welfare experts, family reunification and family tracing efforts, followed by the possibility of foster care and refugee benefits in the United States before adoption considerations.