PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the fall of 2008, a pastor traveled through the barren countryside of Haiti asking parents to give him their children. He promised an education and a better life at an orphanage he said was bankrolled by Americans.
Twenty-eight children were sent with the pastor. But his promise proved false: Within three months, one child had died, and two dozen more were sick and emaciated when discovered by Haitian police, according to United Nations reports on the incident.
Even before the Port-au-Prince earthquake left as many as 300,000 children homeless — and before the spotlight fell on 10 Idaho missionaries charged with kidnapping Haitian kids — Haiti was a country where children were commonly reduced to a commodity. They were smuggled across the border as cheap labor, peddled for black-market adoptions, abandoned by their parents or forced into servitude, records and interviews show.
Despite the constant urging of human rights organizations, Haiti's government has made little progress toward protecting its children from exploitation or neglect, a McClatchy Newspapers examination found. By its own account, the government inspected only half of the country's documented orphanages — and no one can say how many orphanages work off the books.
The situation is sure to worsen. Thousands more children were left homeless or lost parents in the earthquake, while the country's feeble safety net was left in tatters.
"The government must care for the children," said Father Luc Jolicoeur of the Good Shepherd orphanage in Port-au-Prince's Delmas neighborhood. He said no government inspector has ever visited his orphanage, where he fed oatmeal breakfasts to 78 boys Thursday morning.
"No one asked me anything," Jolicoeur said. "That means those children are forgotten."
Many Haitian orphanages open with good intentions, and the plight of the suddenly parentless in the impoverished country has triggered an outpouring of people rushing to Haiti. Yet even those wanting to help enter a system woefully unregulated and facing a crushing need that overwhelms.
Haiti's record before the Jan. 12 earthquake showed just how vulnerable to abuse the country's children have been. Consider:
In September, U.S. prosecutors indicted Douglas Perlitz, a Colorado missionary, on charges that he used food and gifts to extract sexual favors from teens at an orphanage he ran in northern Haiti. The orphanage was financed with donations from a Connecticut church group. Perlitz has pleaded not guilty.
Two years ago, two Canadian aid workers were convicted in their home country of sexually abusing boys at an orphanage in southern Haiti.
In 2007, the International Organization for Migration discovered 47 children who were solicited from their parents by the operators of a rogue adoption center in Port-au-Prince.
That same year, Haitian police arrested the operator of an orphanage housing 32 children being offered in black-market adoptions.
Haiti is overwhelmed with children with nowhere to go. Thirty-eight percent of the population is under 15, nearly double the U.S. rate of 20 percent.
Nobody knows how many Haitian children are living in orphanages or group homes — making the problem hard to measure and harder to trace. UNICEF estimated that roughly 50,000 children in Haiti lived in orphanages before the earthquake, but the nonprofit Save the Children puts the figure at 380,000. After the earthquake, the number of vulnerable children is estimated to be as high as one million.
Unaccompanied children now wander the cramped, chaotic squalor of Port-au-Prince's tent camps, seeking food and protection from strangers.
Joseph Marcel built a tent from cardboard, tarp and twine for 50 children in the camp called Mais-Gate after the earthquake cracked the walls of his orphanage. Twenty new children have joined him in the past three weeks.
"None of the authorities have contacted us," Marcel said. "That is the biggest struggle. They don't ask for information. They don't ask how I'm living with the children. They don't offer any help."
Some children have drifted into the fold of other families. Charnell Bonhomme, 13, has been in the care of his neighbors after he stumbled upon them in a tent camp called Champs de Mars. Charnell's parents were killed when their house collapsed.
"His uncle and his older brother know where he is," said Marie-Ange Pierre, 43, the boy's adoptive mother. "But we are his family now. We pulled together when that happened."
For some families, the burden is too much, and they have resorted to desperate measures — willingly offering their own children to foreign aid workers and journalists.
In the Mais-Gate camp, Jean Fernand Auguste said the foreigners offer the only chance of a better life for her 8-year-old daughter, Difrancesca.
"I want her to have a good education," Auguste said. "It doesn't matter if it is in the United States or Haiti. She is beautiful. She is a good daughter."
At the Champs de Mars camp, Orianna Gilbert offered Josena, the 8-month-old baby on her hip. If a foreigner wouldn't take her, Gilbert planned to take the child to an orphanage. "I don't have the things a baby needs," she said. "It's impossible."
Even before the earthquake, it was not uncommon for parents to give up their children. More than 200,000 are in forced domestic servitude. Meanwhile, aid groups estimate that less than half of the children in orphanages were true orphans. Most were kids whose parents simply had no way to care for them.
"There are such levels of poverty that a family will put a child in an orphanage just so that they get fed," said Melissa Winkler of the International Rescue Committee.
Experts believe most of the country's orphanages — several of which are financed or managed by American charities or church groups — operate without any regulation or oversight. Only about 600 orphanages are officially registered with the government. Inspectors reach just 300 of those, according to UNICEF.
The owners of some facilities don't consider themselves orphanages, and feel no need to submit to government oversight. Karen Bultje, who runs an unregistered home called Coram Deo in Delmas, said all but one of the 13 children in her care were brought by their families.
"They're not true orphans without a mother and father," Bultje said. "I'm helping out families because the families can't look after them."
Yet a disturbing pattern of exploitation has also emerged from the orphanage industry, Haitian officials say — illustrated most recently by the case of the 10 American missionaries, who were charged Thursday with kidnapping for trying to cross Haiti's border with 33 undocumented children.
The missionaries have said they planned to set up an orphanage for earthquake orphans in the Dominican Republic. Haitian police said the group was planning adoptions for the kids without government approval, and many of the children found with the missionaries were not orphans at all; they had been solicited from their families.
Aid workers and Haitian officials say in many cases parents are tricked or manipulated into giving up their children to traffickers, not realizing the kids could be taken out of the country.
"If they believe this person can save their child, they will choose to give the child away," Haiti's Social Affairs Minister, Yves Christalin, told McClatchy Newspapers. "But when the shock is over, many begin to realize the error of their decision."
Many of the unaccompanied children around Port-au-Prince may only be separated from surviving parents or relatives who cannot yet find them.
"We know from past emergencies that these things take time," said Rebecca Fordham of UNICEF'S child-protection office. "Children have been reunited, sometimes in a matter of days."
For years, the Haitian government has struggled to cope with the orphanage industry and curb child trafficking.
In 2002, the Haitian police founded the Brigade for the Protection of Minors, a special squad targeting traffickers. Yet human-rights groups and the U.S. State Department have called it understaffed and ill-equipped. In 2008, Amnesty International reported that the squad — which had fewer than 20 officers — did not even have access to a car.
Now the Haitian government is increasing security at the airports and along the border, Christalin said. No child will be allowed to leave the country without government approval, he said.
The government has made little headway addressing Haiti's other child-welfare crisis: the pervasive custom of forced domestic servitude known as restavek, Creole for "stay with."
A recent study found that about 225,000 children, most of them girls, are forced to work as servants in the homes of relatives. These children are often sent from rural areas to homes in Port-au-Prince, where they were offered — often falsely — a chance to go to school.
Instead, the children are forced to work, and are often abused, neglected and discarded. One health study found that 15-year-old restavek children weighed 40 pounds less on average than other children about their age.
Because these restaveks were rural children sent to the capital, experts believe many will be among the thousands on the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Now aid groups such as UNICEF and Save the Children and the Haitian government are trying to figure out what to do with them all.
This weekend, UNICEF plans to begin canvassing the tent cities to identify and register unaccompanied children. Aid workers will photograph the children and build a database to help reconnect missing children with their parents — a tricky task in a nation where birth certificates are rare, and where so much was destroyed.
"If they don't remember where they live, they might do a drawing or say that their house is next to a church," said Miguel Fontaine, a UNICEF child-protection advisor.
The primary goal is to reunite children with their families, even with distant relatives. For those children with no place to go, the country offers few options.
UNICEF is organizing teams to inspect still-standing orphanages and locate available bed space. But many orphanages had already swelled to capacity before the earthquake. Last week, Rolande Fernandez of the Bresma orphanage near Petionville said he had already turned away five children.
"We can take one or two but not more than that," Fernandez said. "We don't have the structure. We don't have the food."