Friday, March 26, 2010

Trying to Unite Families

(Miami Herald, March 24, 2010)
Workers scour Haiti to reunite families


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- No one in the tight-knit group of neighbors in Cite Militaire knows exactly where Junior came from. The boy, whose lean frame makes him look younger than his 12 years, was found wandering barefoot through the city the day after the earthquake. He hasn't spoken much since.

Junior's eyes wandered nervously as a case worker with the International Rescue Committee asked him questions about his family.

``Do you know where you were born?''

``Do you have any brothers or sisters?''

``Do you remember where you lived?''

The boy simply shaked his head, no.

Junior is one of 400 children that a network of relief agencies working in tandem with the IRC is hoping to reunite with their families. Total number of documented reunification cases to date: Three.

The International Red Cross also has 70 children registered. To date four have been reunited with their families.

More than two months after the quake, thousands of Haitian children are without their parents. For some, it is somewhat by choice. Families sent their offspring to South Florida to attend school while their parents rebuild their homes and livelihoods. For the ill or injured flown to the United States for emergency care without their relatives knowledge, it was a matter of life and death.

One such case, that of Baby Jenny, was resolved last week when DNA tests proved she was the daughter of a Port-au-Prince couple.

While news of Jenny's safety brought an end to the anguish of her parents Junior Alexis and Nadine Devilme, the nearly two-month ordeal to locate and match just this one family illustrates what case workers are up against -- sorting through hundreds of such cases with little information to go by.

In most cases, the workers do not have DNA technology at their disposal. Instead, caseworkers rely on the clues children and neighbors provide to even start locating possible relatives.

``My father came to visit me,'' little Junior sheepishly tells the International Rescue Committee caseworker in Cite Militaire.

But no such visit ever took place, neighbors tell the caseworker. No one has ever come to see the child.

For now, Junior is living with a street vendor and her three children in a crowded one-room apartment, on a narrow street where chickens and stray dogs peck at the heaps of trash piling up.

The vendor is no kin to Junior, she just decided to bring him in when she saw the boy confused and alone.

``Be a good boy, I'll be back,'' Margareth Bien-Aime, the caseworker, tells Junior. She rubs the top of his head to comfort him.

Bien-Aime, 31, jots down notes in a green notebook, closes it shut and so begins the trail to find Junior's family.

Bien-Aime is one of 60 Haitian caseworkers working with the International Rescue Committee, UNICEF and Save the Children.

She travels nearly two-hours each day on crowded tap-tap buses from her home in the southern reaches of Léogane to Port-au-Prince. Her day starts at 5 a.m. and will not end until 8 p.m. when she finally arrives home.

In Port-au-Prince, she and the other case workers spend eight hours in the oppressive heat combing through tent cities in search of leads.

``All I can think about is trying to find those kids' families,'' said Bien-Aime, who prior to the earthquake worked as a children's counselor for 10 years. Even if their parents are gone, a relative might take in a child rather than letting the child go into the nation's burgeoning orphan system.

Part of her challenge is weeding out fact from fiction in each child's account. She has become used to children blurring the line between relatives and friends, dreams and reality. Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, children cling to those they know, referring to their friends as siblings, neighbors as aunts, elders as grandparents.

``I live here with my auntee,'' Junior softly tells Bien-Aime.

``Auntee'' is in fact the street vendor who found the child near the police station the day after the quake.

Curious neighbors crowd her apartment, each chiming in with their thoughts and prodding the boy to speak up. Bien-Aime urges them to be quiet. She doesn't want the boy, already in shock, to become more scared.

Having gotten all the information she can out of Junior, Bien-Aime goes in search of the street vendor.

Typically Bien-Aime will walk or hitch rides on tap-tap buses.

On a crowded Delmas street, she searches for the vendor who is taking care of Junior. Loomil Carrontong eeks out a living selling small bags of cornflakes, sugar and gum under a rainbow striped umbrella. On a good day, Carrontong might make $1. But since the earthquake, there haven't been many good days.

Although she has three teenagers of her own, Carrontong couldn't bear to leave the lonely and scared boy at the police station.

``Has the boy shared any information with you about his family?'' Bien-Aime asked.

Very little, Carrontong said. He may have a father in the rural town of Jérémie. His mother's name is Roseloure, but he has not spoken much about her.

Bien-Aime jots everything down in her green notebook.

She has another lead to pursue: the police station where Junior was found.

But on this day, there will be no emotional reunion.

Workers must often follow half a dozen leads to try to get something as simple as a cellphone number, or possible camp location of a missing relative. Often when they head to the last known location of a relative, that person has fled to the country side, or died in the earthquake.

For those children whose families are never found, relief agencies have started tossing around the idea of establishing a formalized Haitian foster care program -- the first of its kind for a country where children are often sold as ``restaveks,'' a term for child slaves, or left at crowded orphanages.

``Foster families is a really new concept here, but if we do it right, we can show that the model can work in a place where it hasn't worked before,'' said Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer for Save the Children's U.S operation.

Still, most social service groups say after going through such a traumatic experience, it would be best to place the children with relatives who can offer a sense of normalcy.

``They have just seen so much destruction and death and are surrounded by so much uncertainty, so we feel very strongly about not removing them to yet another place that is going to cause trauma and be unfamiliar,'' said Melissa Winkler, spokeswoman for the IRC.

But time is of the essence.

The longer the children are separated from their families, the more they risk being exposed to child traffickers.

In child separation cases in the Congo and Darfur, it sometimes took more than a year to link up relatives, said IRC officials. They expect Haiti to be especially challenging because thousands fled from Port-au-Prince after the earthquake.

``The reality is that you have families that fled to other parts of the country, and tracking down those families is a complex process that doesn't just happen with one phone call,'' Moor said.

The agencies are hoping their digital database with all the children's information and photos will help relatives in encampments outside the capital locate missing children.

``It is a process that doesn't always work, but it often does, and that's what keeps us motivated to keep looking,'' Winkler said. ``You never know who is out there looking for their lost child, or willing to take care of their nephews, nieces and grandchildren.''

Like Junior, many of the children are in shock and can't articulate their thoughts right away.

The volunteers can ask children to draw pictures of their homes and neighborhoods, and to talk about their daily routines. That kind of information often provides clues about where the child lived.

Until children can be reunited with their relatives, there are safecamps set up where instructors lead children in dances and songs. Neighbors and friends are also stepping up to serve as surrogate parents, and then there are those like Carrontong -- strangers willing to open up their home and heart.

She agrees to help Bien-Aime find out whatever she can about Junior's family, and assures the caseworker she will provide for the boy until then, just like she told herself the day she found him:

``I knew I would take care of him like he was one of my own.''
Exhaustive efforts to reunite hundreds of Haitian children with their quake-scattered families often come up empty.

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