PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Jean Peterson Estime was outside playing soccer when his home pancaked in last week’s earthquake and killed his parents and five sisters.

Now he sleeps with thousands in a Port-au-Prince park and forages in rubble for food and goods he can sell to survive. “I’m trying to get a little job so I can take care of myself,” he says, attempting to look brave even as he shuffles his dirty feet in too-big sandals.

What the 13-year-old really wants is someone to take him in.

Tens of thousands of children have been orphaned by the magnitude-7.0 quake, aid groups say – so many that officials won’t venture a number. With buildings destroyed and growing chaos in the capital, they say many children are like Jean – living alone on the streets.

“Without doubt, most of them are in the open,” said Elizabeth Rodgers, of the Britain-based international orphan group SOS Children.

Some may have family, but they’ve been abandoned or left unconscious at triage centres for care.

One 5-month-old patient at the Israeli field hospital has a number rather than a name.

No one even knows who left him at the makeshift medical centre after he was pulled from a collapsed building four days after the quake. Doctors have a difficult decision as he recovers.

“What will we do with him when we are finished?” said Dr. Assa Amit of the hospital’s pediatric emergency department.

Even before Tuesday’s deadly magnitude-7.0 earthquake, Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, was awash in orphans, with 380,000 children living in orphanages or group homes, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported on its Web site.

Some children lost their parents in previous disasters, including deadly tropical storms and hurricanes that hit in 2004, 2005 and 2008, plus massive floods almost every other year since 2000. Others were abandoned amid the Caribbean nation’s long-running political strife, which has led thousands to seek asylum in the U.S. – without their children – or by parents who were simply too poor to care for them.

International advocacy groups are trying to help, either by speeding up adoptions that were already in progress, or by sending in relief personnel to evacuate thousands of orphans to the U.S. and other countries.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday announced a humanitarian parole policy that allows orphaned Haitian children into the U.S. temporarily on a case-by-case basis, so they can receive the care they need.

Spokesman Sean Smith said orphans who have ties to the U.S. – such as a family member already living here – are among those who can get special permission to remain in the United States.

More than 50 children, most of whom already have adoptive families waiting for them, arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tuesday. After receiving initial medical treatment, they were taken to a “comfort centre” with food, drink and toys, where they will stay until they are placed with foster families.

About 100 other children from the same orphanage, which was destroyed in the quake, are being cared for by Dutch and French agencies.

A charter plane is heading to Haiti to pick up 109 children being adopted by Dutch families and will reach Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, according to the Dutch government.

Indiana-based Kids Alive International, which runs orphanages around the world, is expected to take 50 Haitian orphans to group homes in the Dominican Republic, the organization said in a news release.

Notwithstanding the U.S. policy, the Catholic Church in Miami is working on a proposal that would allow thousands of orphaned children to come permanently to America. A similar effort launched in 1960, known as Operation Pedro Pan, brought about 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba to the U.S.

Under the new plan, dubbed “Pierre Pan,” Haitian orphans would first be placed in group homes and then paired with foster parents, said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami.

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said the United Nations is establishing a group on the ground in Haiti to protect children – orphans and non-orphans alike – against trafficking, kidnapping and sex abuse.

Orphanages that were operating in Haiti before the earthquake are scrambling to keep their kids safe, sheltered and fed.

Three of the four orphanages operated in Port-au-Prince by Planting Peace, a Melbourne, Fla., non-profit, have been damaged, forcing staff to move everyone into one building. They are now trying to secure homes in Haiti for the kids, the group’s founder, Aaron Jackson, told The Associated Press in an email. Rainn Wilson, who appears in the TV show “The Office,” is raising money for the group, Jackson said.

All 37 of his orphans are physically fine, Jackson said, and he would like to help more children.

“There needs to be some communication from the government level about what we need to do. Can we take these children?” he said. “We’re ready. We’ve already raised a fair amount of money where we can go out and get an orphanage running soon.”

Sherrie Fausey had to evacuate 30 children from her Christian Light Foundation orphanage in the capital after her facility was badly damaged in the quake.

Fausey, a former Florida elementary school teacher who came to Haiti 10 years ago, acknowledges that her job – daunting before the quake – has become even more challenging now.

“Wherever the Lord sends you, he’ll make you content to be there,” she said. “Times can be hard, but I’d rather be here in all this rubble. It’s where my kids are.”

Jean, a charming boy who kisses the extended hand of a foreign woman instead of shaking it, has found work so far loading food from a warehouse to trucks. The warehouse owner has given him something to eat.

He’s only had a few years of school. He dropped out when his family could no longer afford it, and he can’t read or write much. But he’d like a family who could feed him and let him return to school.

At the Israeli field hospital, patient No. 236, a 6-month-old boy, lies on a hospital stretcher, crying in pain. Relatives brought him to the medical centre shortly after the disaster, then left. They didn’t leave his name. His parents are dead.

Doctors suspect the infant had meningitis long before the earthquake. They also suspect that no one is coming back for him.

“We will wait to discharge him until there is a facility that can grant continuous care,” Amit said.

Associated Press Writers Curt Anderson and Matt Sedensky in Miami, Ramit Plushnik-Mast and Dan Nephin in Pennsylvania, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Posted by: R.D. | January 30, 2010

Post-earthquake: Somber outlook for Haiti’s youth

The cities of Leogane and Petit Goave, about 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, lie in rubble. They are the two towns closest to the epicenter of the massive earthquake that struck the country on January 12th. Amidst the debris, between roads that have been split wide open, surviving children play just outside their collapsed homes. They have half-smiles on their faces and are terrified of going back indoors. In the quake, a number of them lost family members, friends, limbs, and all material possessions.

Haiti’s youth, like the rest of the population, is now in a state of dire emergency. But for the country’s children, hit by the tragedy in their formative years, this is only the beginning. With a large section of the country turned to dust, and a reconstruction effort that will take months to begin, and years, if not decades, to be completed, a difficult path strewn with lack of opportunities lies ahead for Haiti’s children. The physical and psychological trauma they suffered on January 12th will take a long time to heal, if ever. Inadequate infrastructure and teachers, a problem to begin with here, was made much worse by the earthquake. Considering Haiti’s incredibly young population, this generation might be lost without the prospects that an education brings.

“It’s a very somber prospective for this generation,” said Jean Fils Sainton, General Secretary of Education for Haiti’s Methodist schools. “Those children who survived are deeply traumatized. They need psychological assistance, but nobody is thinking about it because people are simply trying to stay alive. Plus, we don’t have many psychologists in this country,” said Sainton, who prefers to sleep in a tent outside his one-story home in the devastated downtown of Petit Goave, despite the fact that the house is still standing, because he is also terrified of the continuing aftershocks.

Of the six Methodist schools in the greater Petit Goave area that Sainton supervises, and which used to serve 7500 underprivileged students from age four to 18, five were leveled by the earthquake and will need to be completely rebuilt. “The sixth one is still standing, but before classes can start again, structural engineers will have to determine whether or not the heavily cracked building is safe to return to,” said Sainton. He doesn’t know when that might happen.

According to Sainton, 95% of schools in Haiti’s West Department, the region around Port-au-Prince and the one worst hit by the quake, have been impacted. But as hundreds of thousands people have been left homeless in what is the country’s most densely populated region, and now live in overcrowded makeshift camps lacking sanitation, the focus of the Haitian government and of the international community remains on emergency relief. Two weeks after the earthquake struck, with even a precise death toll still a guessing game, nobody has a sense of exactly how desperate the state of Haiti’s schools is, or an idea of when they might be able to open again.

“At first I thought schools could open again in two months,” said Hugues Desgranges, who formally works as a senior advisor to the Director General of Haiti’s Port Authority, and who also runs a local NGO, “but as I started driving around and seeing how many school buildings were flattened, I realized that it’ll be at least a year.”

Desgranges can call himself lucky. In 1999, his NGO, the Henry Desgranges Foundation, built a school just outside Petit Goave, where children from disadvantaged families could attend classes from kindergarten to seventh grade. Today, the Desgranges Foundation’s main building, a small one-story complex that hosts two of the school’s classrooms alongside a health care center, though damaged, is still standing. The two-classroom annex he recently built just adjacent to the main building, however, has collapsed. “Here in the countryside, we could start teaching again under tents,” Desgranges said pointing to the large courtyard that surrounds the school, “but in Port-au-Prince there is not enough space for that.”

According to Desgranges, even if schools promptly re-opened, many children wouldn’t be able to go back. Poor families that have lost all the little they had in the quake, can no longer afford school fees, not even the mere five Haitian Dollars a month (less than $1 US) that Desgranges charges in normal circumstances. And, said Desgranges, there will be plenty more dropouts, considering the number of children the quake made orphans or permanently handicapped.

In any case, for the time being, Desgranges Foundation’s main building is functioning as a staging location for a number of foreign medical first responder teams that come and go. And the courtyard has been turned into a small makeshift camp for the area’s families that lost their homes in the earthquake. It will be several weeks before the focus will begin switching to education again, even here where not everything was flattened.

“I’m scared for myself because without a home I have no place to live,” said 33 years-old Samson Saint Jean, an agricultural worker from the poor neighborhood of Chabanne, near Petit Goave, who lost his house in the earthquake, “and I’m scared for my children because without education they won’t be able to go anywhere in life.” Saint Jean’s older child Miglove, a 10 years-old boy who likes going to school and always brings back good grades, attends Desgranges’ elementary school. Now, with the school closed, he sits alone at the makeshift camp or follows his parents out in the fields.

For the area’s poor families, the lack of a functioning school means not only a glum future for their kids, but also one more mouth to feed, since, normally, the school would provide for at least some of their meals. “Right now, I’m happy everybody is alive,” said Louines Jean Charles, who works as a lotto organizer and whose home was also destroyed by the earthquake, “but I hope the school can open soon again, otherwise it will be a big problem.” Out in the courtyard, Jean Charles’ six-year-old son France, also a pupil at Desgranges’ school, had just been treated by a team of German doctors. During the January 12th earthquake, a block of cement fell on him. Two weeks later he had a badly infected wound on his left thigh.

As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, issues of extreme poverty and lack of access to education have plagued Haiti for a long time. Already before the earthquake, there were too few schools in the country to be able to serve a burgeoning population comprising mostly young people (according to the CIA World Factbook, 38.1% of Haiti’s population is under the age of 14). It also lacked teachers both in terms of numbers and adequate training. The earthquake that struck two weeks ago was literally the nail in the coffin of Haiti’s school system, having killed an undetermined number of teachers and destroyed countless school buildings.

Long-term consequences to the devastation brought by the earthquake to Haiti’s school system are difficult to gauge, but the outlook seems grim. “This will badly affect our fledgling industry,” said Desgranges, “for it to develop you need qualified technicians, and good schools are the only ones that can train people, but now they are destroyed.”

Take, for example, Saint Girard Technical School, Port-au-Prince’s best, which was flattened in the quake. Or the Seminaire College Saint Martial, managed by the Jesuits and also considered to be among the top schools in Haiti. It was also destroyed. Or the Lycee in Leogane, the city’s biggest high school, now just a pile of rubble. Or any other number of schools which collapsed onto themselves and are, like a number of the teachers and students that inhabited them, now no more.

Posted by: R.D. | January 30, 2010

Aid groups urge halt to new Haiti adoptions

London, England (CNN) — Three aid groups called Thursday for an immediate halt to any new adoptions of Haitian children after last week’s earthquake.

Save the Children, World Vision and a unit of the British Red Cross said the focus first must be on tracing any family members that children may still have and reuniting them.

“Any hasty new adoptions would risk permanently breaking up families, causing long-term damage to already vulnerable children, and could distract from aid efforts in Haiti,” the agencies said in a joint statement.

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The disaster in Haiti has led to an outpouring of support around the world, with the United States alone donating more than $305 million as of Wednesday, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper covering nonprofit organizations.

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Stories of Haitian orphanages struggling after the quake and the plight of the children there also has led many to ask about adopting children.

After reading a CNN report on Haitian orphans, CNN.com reader Dana Fanning wrote, “It broke my heart. My husband and our 4 children want to know if and how we could adopt [any] of the children orphaned by the earthquake.”

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Save the Children Chief Executive Jasmine Whitbread said the “vast majority” of children on their own in Haiti are not orphans, but were simply separated from their families in the chaos.

Their family members may still be alive, she said, and “will be desperate to be reunited with them.”

“Taking children out of the country would permanently separate thousands of children from their families — a separation that would compound the acute trauma they are already suffering and inflict long-term damage on their chances of recovery,” Whitbread said.

Allowing a flood of new adoptions also could open the door to traffickers, said World Vision Chief Executive Justin Byworth.

The poverty in Haiti already makes children there “extremely vulnerable” to exploitation and abuse, Byworth said.

“We are concerned not only about premature overseas adoption but also about children increasingly being sent unaccompanied to the Dominican Republic,” he said.

Aid groups said adoptions that were already in progress before the January 12 earthquake should go ahead, as long as the right legal documents are in place and they meet Haitian and international law.

For those who want to help Haitian children, Whitbread said, they should donate to aid agencies who are working on reuniting those children with their families.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has opened an office at the headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross in Crois de Prez to help people locate their relatives, said Pete Garratt, a disaster response manager at the British Red Cross.

The ICRC also has set up a Web site to help people searching for relatives, he said