PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti · Officially, 200 homes for orphaned or abandoned children are registered by the state.
But the figure is at least 10 years old.
Ten years of political upheaval, violence and international military occupation.
Ten years of societal breakdown rooted in the AIDS crisis and in the mass migration of thousands of poor families pouring into cities from an environmentally collapsed countryside.
The government doesn't know how many orphanages operate.
"You can't even begin to figure the true number," says Roosevelt Jean Louis, an officer with Haiti's social service and child protection office. "We have a form, a process, a licensing mechanism for registering an orphanage, but there are so many that do not bother. "
Some so-called orphanages merely serve as fronts for child merchants who are paid by relatives to take the children. These children may work as domestic servants and are often abused, according to UNICEF and other child advocacy groups.
The "official" number 200 doesn't include any number of church orphanages, private home orphanages, missionary efforts to provide programs for orphans. It doesn't include dozens, perhaps hundreds, of smaller independent efforts like Aaron Jackson's and the Comfort's homes for HIV-positive orphans.
A 2002 study of orphans in Haiti by Family Health International, an international medical charity, found that many homes are not inspected, and many struggle "to supply food, education and other necessities to the children they house.
Orphanages are poorly regulated for several reasons.
Child protection officers, like so many government workers, are often viewed as corrupt. Official-looking people with official-looking papers will show up at orphanages and threaten to report them, or worse, threaten violence, if the "officials" are not paid a bribe.
It's easy to get registered as an orphanage, but they're never going to visit you to inspect you,'' says Brother Pierre St. Vistal, director of the Foyer d'Accueil, an orphanage for girls in God's Village, a slum along Port-au-Prince's waterfront.
If you want an inspection, you have to go pick up the child protection officer at his orphanage, because they don't have cars. You have to drive him to your place, and he just does the inspection. It's a joke really."
Those who register do it more to protect themselves from corrupt inspections.
You just want to be on record because you never have any idea when someone is going to show up, saying you're in violation of something and demanding a bribe," says Aaron Jackson, who runs a home for HIV-positive children, as well as another for healthy children through the Homeless Voice in Hollywood.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times