2 years after Haiti disaster over 6000 children still have not found their families: “There are thousands upon thousands of children in institutions in Haiti. I’ve never seen anything quite like it,”
Second anniversary Haiti earthquake: After the chaos
Two years later, an Ottawa woman continues her work as part of a team to reunite children separated from their families
By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen January 5, 2012
OTTAWA — The fallout from the massive earthquake that ripped through Haiti almost two years ago killed more than 200,000 people. Another 300,000 were injured, and hundreds of thousands more were homeless.
Add to those grim statistics one more: by last September, the list of children separated from their families had reached almost 9,000 names. Some had been registered before the Jan. 12, 2010 quake, but up to 60 per cent more were added to the list after.
“The earthquake happened around 5 p.m., and many parents were not with their children,” said Christina Torsein, a child protection specialist with UNICEF in Haiti. “Some of the children were in school, or the parents were at the market, for example.”
Torsein, who calls Ottawa home, has worked in the world’s conflict and disaster hotspots for 10 years, always focused on the rights and protection of children. She has worked in Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Burma. Days before the Haiti quake, Torsein had finished a stint in Jerusalem, with plans to take a few months off. Then the earthquake struck, and within three weeks she had landed in Port au Prince to work with UNICEF.
In the “chaotic” early days of the relief effort, Torsein worked with a UNICEF team and non-governmental agencies to build a system for tracing lost children or parents. They set up a call centre for NGO workers and medical teams to register children they’d come across in the relief effort. Each child was given official identification papers, and Haitian case workers were trained to investigate cases and track down relatives.
So far they have managed to reunite more than 2,700 children with their families, but there are still 6,010 children on the list. Some are living with extended family or guardians, while many more have joined the thousands already living in what UNICEF calls “residential care centres.”
“There are thousands upon thousands of children in institutions in Haiti. I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says Torsein. “We promote family reunification whenever possible, but we also evaluate the care centres. Half a dozen or so have been closed in the past year when evaluations showed the conditions were deplorable or there was commercial profit involved.”
UNICEF avoids the word orphanage, Torsein says, “because in many cases, the children aren’t orphans. Some of these places are wonderful, but some others are just a business operation, and the people running them know exactly where the mother and father are.”
Torsein says the reality is that some parents gave up their children before the quake because they simply couldn’t afford to take care of them. For the operators of some of the care centres, it is a “business operation,” Torsein says, with many children being sent abroad for illegal adoptions or smuggled across the border to Dominican Republic, to be sold as labourers. For unscrupulous operators, the earthquake opened up more opportunities.
Monitoring of the care centres is evidence of how, two years on, the hectic pace of the relief effort has given way to thoughts of the future, says Torsein. After living in a tent for the first four months, she now has an apartment to call her own; similarly the UNICEF program has expanded to assisting Haiti improve its child protection laws and systems. As a recent signatory to the Hague Intercountry Adoption Convention, the country has committed to reforming and enforcing its protection laws and regulations for international adoptions.
While witnessing a reunion between parent and child is moving, Torsein says it is the dedication of her colleagues that impresses her most.
“A lot of things melt my heart, the people I work with, in particular,” says Torsein. “They’ve been through a tremendous amount themselves. The one-year anniversary was very emotional. Many members of my team lost loved ones — their own children or their parents — in the earthquake.”
Torsein is especially thrilled that the government of Haiti is considering hiring the tracing and reunification program’s 250 Haitian case workers, which would boost the country’s ability to deliver social services.
“It’s tremendously exciting to be at this cusp,” says Torsein. “We have this cadre of experienced child protection workers who can become social workers.”
The outbreak of cholera just over a year ago slowed some of the reunification work, as case workers were deployed to promote hygiene and awareness as part of the all-out effort to prevent the spread of the water-borne disease, but now the focus is back on child protection.
“It has been very intense. I love what I do, I’m passionate about what I do and I work with amazing people,” says Torsein. In spite of the extensive devastation left by the earthquake, she adds, “there is remarkable goodwill, engagement and commitment on the part of all the actors, whether NGOs or senior civil servants. The people of Haiti are dynamic, resilient and strong, and they have remarkable potential for a strong, happy society.”
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