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Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Sunday, 11 July 2010 14:00 UK
Haiti's 'phantom' street children after the earthquake

By Raphael Rowe
BBC Panorama

Six months after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, authorities are still struggling to cope with thousands of children orphaned or abandoned by their parents.

boy at fence
Haiti's 500 orphanages are full to overflowing

Since the quake, about 500 orphanages and a small army of volunteers have worked to accommodate the children, and reunite some of them with relatives.

There was a global outcry when a group of US missionaries was accused of trying to smuggle 33 Haitian children out of the country after the quake. The missionaries said the children were orphans - but it later emerged that the children had parents.

That story pointed to a much bigger issue. A recent trip to investigate the plight of Haiti's children revealed that many have fallen through the vast net of aid agencies.

Despite millions of dollars being donated and aid being flown in to help ease the crisis, many children have ended up living rough on the streets.

In harm's way

Michael Brewer is a paediatric nurse who has been working with what he describes as Haiti's "phantom" street children for 12 years.

"The kids I work with are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable," he said. "The children on the streets are six to 10 years old and they have no-one, no family.

"They are totally responsible for their own survival in every way and they are completely out of the system. They are like phantoms."

These youngsters depend on the kindness of strangers and are vulnerable to traffickers who might take them across the border to the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Those children are the ones that are going to rebuild Haiti, to be responsible for the Haiti of tomorrow. I cannot just decide that everybody has to flee the country
Jean-Max Bellerive, Haitian Prime Minister

Despite efforts to reunite displaced children with their parents, of the 2,000 who have been registered with Unicef since the earthquake hit, fewer than 300 have been reunited with a parent or relative.

Until Haiti is ready to take on the care of its orphaned and abandoned children, some believe they should be allowed to go to families abroad.

John Leininger, a volunteer at the Haiti Children's Rescue Mission, looks for Christian families in the US willing to adopt.

He defended the push by foreign aid organisations to move children out of the country to new lives abroad and said he believed Haiti was decades away from being strong enough to care for its own children.

"Until that happens you cannot put children in harm's way by putting them into situations where they have no healthcare, no food," he said.

"How can you do that when there are parents in the United States and other countries begging to take them home and care for them."

'No choice'

Fast-track international adoptive policies agreed between governments had allowed more than 5,000 children who were already in the adoptive process to be taken overseas. But this arrangement has now stopped.

Haiti Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the BBC that the government is not yet able to provide for all unprotected children.

Haiti girls given up for 'a better life'

But he believes adoption should be done in a "proper way" by following the appropriate legal procedures.

"Those children are the ones that are going to rebuild Haiti, to be responsible for the Haiti of tomorrow. I cannot just decide that everybody has to flee the country," he said.

But some families have become so desperately poor and unable to feed or care for their offspring that they are putting them up for adoption or, in some cases, giving them away to strangers.

We met the father of four-month-old twin daughters whose wife had died and was driven by desperation to give his children to a stranger he met in a tent camp.

He initially pretended he was dead because he thought they would receive more support as orphans.

"I have no choice. I cannot take care of them," he said of this decision.

"At the moment I am not in a stable position because their mother is dead and I have six children to take care of."

One of the aid agencies traced his story and reunited him with his daughters, who will remain with the Haitian family that took them in after the disaster.

Better life

But some parents are not so fortunate.

Six-year-old Judson is one of 40 children waiting to be adopted at Haiti Children's Rescue Mission after his mother gave him up voluntarily because she too could not afford to keep him.

She said she wants her son to have a better quality of life with a family overseas.

What's best for Haiti's orphans?

"I can't send him to school. I was brought up by parents who couldn't afford to look after me. They never sent me to school. I can't even read or write. I don't want my children to end up like this," she said.

Preacher Lelly Laurentus and his wife Manette also gave away their only children, six-year-old Leilla and four-year-old Soraya, in the hope they would find better lives abroad.

Their girls were among the 33 children that American missionaries tried to take out of the country after the quake. They were stopped and the missionaries temporarily detained while authorities tried to figure out who the children were and where they were being taken.

The incident caused a media storm amid accusations of child trafficking.

The Laurentus's daughters were eventually returned home.

But their mother, Manette, defended her decision and the missionaries' bid to leave Haiti with the girls. She said she was doing the best she could by her children.

"I don't regret it because if they had succeeded in what they were trying to do, it would have been a good thing for us. From a mother's point of view, you owe these things to your child," she said.

Panorama: Orphans of Haiti, BBC One, Monday, 12 July at 2030BST.

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Monday, 17 May 2010, 20:45 GMT |  Americas
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Protecting Haiti's children from 'cowboy adoptions'
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