In a nation founded by former slaves, you might think that forced domestic labour would never be tolerated. You’d be wrong. Before the earthquake there was an estimated 225,000 children forced to live in and clean other people’s homes. Known as ‘restaveks’ these children are often sent away from their families to live with distant relatives or strangers in the hope that they might have a better life. It’s a heart wrenching decision for any mother. Keep your child at home, but have no money to clothe or feed them, let alone educate them – or send them to another family, who may be able to send them to school in return for doing some household chores. It’s a practice that makes children very vulnerable to abuse.
When the earthquake hit Haiti, it became nearly impossible for many families to trace the children living apart from them. Desperate parents sought their children but found only decimated buildings and heaps of rubble at the address. Where could they have gone? Even a year on, there are still well over 1,000 camps, housing over 800,000 people. It’s a daunting task to attempt to reunite separated children with their parents. But Save the Children is leading a multi-organisation process called Family Tracing and Reunification – which does just this.
Caseworker co-ordinator Dominique vividly remembers the case of Lespagne, a 10-year-old boy who was a ‘restavek’. After going door-to-door to find his immediate or extended family, Save the Children managed to trace his parents. They had thought he’d died in the quake. When they realised how badly he had been treated by his ‘host family’, they were angry, but were delighted to have Lespagne back with them.
Despite being poor, they are now a happy family once again. Just under 5,000 children have been registered as separated, with over 1,200 reunited. That night Dominique celebrated one more successful reunification. The next day he started all over again.