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At a glance: Haiti

UNICEF helps protect vulnerable Haitian children in residential care centres

© UNICEF Haiti/2011/Steinlechner
Amelie (not her real name), 12, on her bed in a residential care centre for Haitian children. The facility has been deemed substandard and is supposed to be closed soon.

Children in Haiti are still reeling from the impact of the 12 January 2010 earthquake. Here is one in a series of stories on the long road from relief to recovery, a year later.

By Benjamin Steinlechner

PORT-AU- PRINCE, 24 January 2011 – After the January 2010 earthquake – indeed, even before – some impoverished Haitian families chose to send their children to residential care centres in hopes of giving them a better life. But as the story of Amelie* demonstrates, these hopes were not always met.

Amelie, 12, lives in one of the many such centres in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. “My parents agreed to my aunt taking me here,” she recalls shyly, sitting on a mattress atop a rusty bed frame. “They give me food here and I go to school.”

Miserable conditions

Amelie’s centre leaves much to be desired. Dirty clothes lay scattered on the few bunk beds, and flies buzz about the room. There are no toys in the centre, and with faeces splashed over the white tiles, there seems little difference between the toilet and the floor.

© UNICEF Haiti/2011/Steinlechner
A group of girls sit on the floor of a poorly managed residential care centre slated for closure in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Not all residential care centres are the same, however.

Aldine, 16, lives in a centre not far from Amelie’s. The difference between the two facilities couldn’t be greater. At Aldine’s centre, a protective iron gate opens to reveal what resembles a little village, with several clean, small houses sitting in generously designed green space. Each house, designated for a different age group, has its own caregiver for the children within.

Having arrived at the centre when she was seven, Aldine knows she has been comparatively lucky. “My mother and father died, and my grandmother, who took care of me, couldn’t afford to send me to school,” she says.

Children at risk

Last year’s earthquake reinforced the point that so many Haitian children are highly vulnerable to neglect and abuse, and need to have their basic needs met. In response, UNICEF and its partners have taken a two-pronged approach: helping parents care for their children while also ensuring that existing residential centres are properly monitored and assisted.

UNICEF believes that wherever possible, children should remain with their families or in family-based care. But children who cannot be raised by their families should have access to an appropriate alternative-care environment with conditions that are individualized to each child’s needs.

“Children in Haiti are faced with numerous risks,” notes UNICEF Haiti Chief of Child Protection Jean Lieby. “Given the emergency situation here, residential care centres are an essential means for protecting children.”

Aldine adds: “I’m very happy about the 10 years I’ve spent here,” says Aldine. “I learned a lot of things. The only thing I’ve missed was family affection – but here you have security, health care and education.”

Monitoring the centres

With support from UNICEF, the Haitian child-protection agency IBESR routinely conducts surprise evaluations of the country’s more than 600 residential care centres. These visits help to ensure that the centres are properly managed. The evaluations are also a means of protecting children like Amelie by keeping track of their whereabouts.

“Her centre needs to be shut down,” says IBESR inspector Yvette Aubergiste. “We’ve come here three times and still there is no change. On the contrary, things are getting worse every time we come.”

When Amelie’s centre is closed, UNICEF will work with IBESR and the Haitian police force’s Brigade de Protection des Mineurs to find temporary housing for her and the other children there – and to reunite them with their families, where possible.

“The situation in Haiti is alarming,” notes Ms. Aubergiste. “I feel terrible when I see situations like this. Most of these children have parents and should be with them. Their families just can’t afford to support them.”

* The names of the children in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.



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