What about the 33 Haitian 'orphans' whose rescuers are in jail?

Often, impoverished parents or other relatives bring children to orphanages. Meanwhile, an estimated 300,000 Haitian children are believed to be enslaved or working as servants for the country's wealthy elite.

By , Staff writer

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    Haitian orphans who are about to be transported to France in order to be be adopted are seen at a French military field hospital in Port-au-Prince.
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The spotlight in the case of 10 Americans charged in Haiti with kidnapping 33 children and attempting to smuggle them out of the country in the wake of last month’s devastating earthquake has fallen squarely on the accused adults.

Receiving less attention are the children themselves.

The Americans, most affiliated with a Baptist church in Idaho, were arrested a week ago for trying to take the children over the border into the Dominican Republic without proper documentation. Since then, the children, ages 2 to 12, have been living at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince run by SOS Children’s Villages, an Austrian nonprofit organization.

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Haitian authorities have determined that at least some of the children are not orphans at all, and representatives of the Port-au-Prince SOS Children’s Village report that some of the ones old enough to understand the uproar surrounding them say they have parents. But the fact the children are at least temporarily being cared for at an orphanage points up their murky status and hints at the precarious living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Haitian children.

Thousands of Haitian children are enslaved

Even before the Jan. 12 temblor wreaked havoc on the country and decimated tens of thousands of families, Haiti had an estimated 380,000 abandoned and orphaned children, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s advocacy agency. If parents of at least some of the children involved in the Americans’ case were willing to give up offspring they felt they could no longer feed and shelter, it is in part reflective of a long tradition of destitute Haitians giving up children – often to the small upper crust of Haitian wealthy, and usually into slavery.

Such children even have a name – restaveks, a Creole term, drawn from the French for “to stay with.” An estimated 300,000 Haitian children are believed to be enslaved or working as servants. But with an estimated 150,000 deaths from the quake, Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, will have seen its orphan population skyrocket, child experts say.

Haiti’s hundreds of orphanages, most of them in Port-au-Prince, are reporting a steady stream of children – in many cases delivered by grandparents or other relatives claiming that the parents were killed in the quake and that they are unable to care for the children.

Americans held on kidnapping charges

The 10 Americans formally charged Thursday with child kidnapping and criminal association could wait in jail in Haiti as long as three months before their case is heard by a Haitian judge, Haitian officials say. Yet US officials, even while insisting that the case is fully in the hands of what they are at pains to demonstrate is a functioning Haitian judicial system, are also suggesting that some arrangement might be worked out allowing the Americans to return home.

At the State Department, spokesman Phillip Crowley said Thursday that “right now the matter rests within the Haitian judicial system.” But he added that the US could pursue “other legal avenues” for the jailed Americans and “will continue to have discussions with the Haitian government as this case proceeds.”

Earlier Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had told reporters the US was discussing the “disposition” of the case with the Haitian government, but Mr. Crowley said it would be a mistake to read too much into Secretary Clinton’s use of the word “disposition.”

Many children’s advocates in Haiti and with international relief organizations say they hope Haiti’s longsuffering children will end up getting as much attention from the case of alleged kidnapping as the Americans have.

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