A Nation Loses Its Childhood

Times Staff Writer

Madeleine Vilma describes the beating that drove her to the streets as if she deserved it.

"I made them mad at me," the skinny 15-year-old recalls of the two women who had paid a pittance for her six years ago and then put her to work as a maid. "I broke the heel off my shoe, so they beat me with their sandals."

Their anger not fully vented, the women she called Auntie and Maman then singed her chest and arms with jolts from a frayed electrical cord, Madeleine recounts, nervously rocking and shifting her legs, stork-like, at the memory.

"They wanted to mark me so that I would remember."

Dispatched to the slums of the Haitian capital when she was 9 by parents unable to feed her, Madeleine had been delivered by a trader into a life of unpaid domestic servitude in exchange for food and shelter. Like an estimated 300,000 other children in this poorest of Western countries, she had no alternative except homelessness and hunger.

Foreign relief workers and Roman Catholic charities lately have been encouraging Haiti's child slaves to come out of the shadows to seek help -- and to expose a century-old practice that has subjected them to shocking abuse. Their growing numbers have prompted questions about whether the world's only successful national slave rebellion 200 years ago was really a victory.

As Haiti approaches the Jan. 1 bicentennial of its independence from French colonial rule, the plight of child slaves is threatening to overshadow official celebrations. It is also a measure of this ravaged country's progress in the two centuries since the slave rebellion.

"How can we be celebrating the bicentennial when this is still going on?" says Father Pierre St. Vistal, sweeping his hand to take in the barefoot, scarred and ragged children huddled around the doorway of his overwhelmed mission. "How can we as Haitians celebrate anything when our kids are on the streets, dying of hunger? This isn't a time for celebration but for being ashamed."

St. Vistal's mission offers hot meals and a crude, wood-planked sleeping loft under its tin roof for 45 of the most mistreated girls from the surrounding shantytown of Cite de Dieu, or City of God. Six hundred others, still toiling in nearby hovels, come in for food and lessons when their patrons allow it. The Catholic priest says he is sometimes confronted with machetes when he urges the keepers to let the children take advantage of schooling paid for by foreign charities.

Its name notwithstanding, there is no hint of divinity in Cite de Dieu, through which flows a filthy river carrying the city's wastes and rainwater out to sea. Narrow mud paths strewn with rocks and refuse left behind by the rainy season's inundations make passage perilous on foot and impossible by car. Rivulets of wastewater and sewage flow from beneath the single-room shacks of tin and plywood. Salvaged tires, peddlers' baskets, wood stoves and broken appliances litter the unmarked streets and alleys.

The children, called restaveks -- from the French rester avec, to stay with -- are not servants of the wealthy but of those just slightly less poor than the parents who sent them here.

As Haiti slips further into extreme poverty each year, the wave of children -- some as young as 4 -- flocking to the cities has become a deluge, forcing most to settle for whatever offer of shelter is on hand. Children who are not brokered go door to door looking for a place to stay.

"Most of these patrons want someone they can have do anything they need done without the conditions that come with employing an adult domestic," St. Vistal says.

"With kids, there are no limits. They have no rights and can be made to do anything."

A June report by the U.S. State Department about human trafficking accused Haiti's government of tolerating the abuse of child servants. Education Minister Marie Carmel Paul-Austin responded with assurances that legislative action had been taken to outlaw domestic servitude for those younger than 12 and that education reforms were underway to help more children get schooling. Neither Paul-Austin nor another official responsible for child welfare was available to discuss the issue, said the ministry's spokesman, Miloody Vincent.

Parliament adopted a measure early this year restricting the use of restaveks, but even the Social Affairs Office charged with registering unpaid domestic workers acknowledges that there hasn't been a single instance of enforcement.

The plight of the children is heart-rending to those fighting for them.

"When kids come from the provinces to the city, the families treat them like slaves, like lower life forms," says Patrick Bernard, who has worked at the Foyer Maurice Sixto refuge in the sprawling Carrefour slum for seven years. "That reaffirms their sense of inferiority, that they are treated like property and not people."

Restaveks first appeared in the capital in the 1920s and '30s, when wealthy families, as "an act of solidarity" with the rural poor, offered shelter and education in exchange for domestic labor, explains Wenes Jeanty, director of the Maurice Sixto program, named for a playwright who first exposed the plight of the restaveks in the 1960s. But as the gap between rich and poor widened drastically in recent decades, children coming from the countryside became so numerous that they were forced to work for anyone able to make the daily pot of beans and rice go one mouth further.

"The wealthy families don't want to get involved anymore. They say this is a form of slavery and they don't want to be associated with it," Jeanty says. "That has left [the children] to the poor and less educated in the cities who are interested in getting help in their own homes for next to nothing."

In a report two years ago that first disclosed the breadth of child enslavement in Haiti and the blind eye turned to the practice by government offices that ostensibly protect minors, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights detailed cases of murdered servants, police complicity in beatings and detention and official indifference to what the group estimates afflicts at least one in 10 Haitian children.

Merrie Archer, the group's director of human rights programs, attributes the widespread mistreatment of restaveks to social acceptance here of brutal forms of corporal punishment. "The violence that children face in Haiti on a day-to-day level is different from what we're used to," she says.

For most restaveks growing up far away from their families, there is no caring soul to help them.

"The households that take these kids in see them as chattel," Archer says. "Often their own parents see them as chattel, as a means of getting support for themselves once the kids get work in the city."

In reality, few ever escape their servitude to find paying jobs. Some restaveks remain servants well into adulthood.

Raising the child slaves' self-worth is crucial to combating the problem, Archer says, as well as making Haitians sensitive to the indignity that enslavement brings on the nation.

Guardians at the Timkatec boys' shelter in Petionville, a hilltop town a few miles above Port-au-Prince that has been subsumed by decades of slum expansion, try to restore their 40 wards' sense of humanity by training them to care for plants and pets.

"Some of these kids have never felt affection," says Alabre Michelet, a nighttime caregiver at the shelter, one of the more comfortable refuges with its solid roof and tiled floor. "Here they learn to be a family to each other. We'd like to do this for all of the street kids, but we have far too few resources."

Inhibited by a mouthful of broken teeth, 16-year-old Jean-Robert Meto slowly divulges the indignities of his years as a servant, when he was forced to sleep curled up alone outside the room where his host family's children slept. He doesn't remember how old he was when his family gave him to a trader but reckons he was 6 or 7. "They treated me differently, not like a brother," he said of the three years he spent with a family. "They went to school, and I didn't."

Like many of the servants kept clandestinely, Jean-Robert wasn't allowed to leave the house even when his chores were done. His keepers feared that he might be noticed by the humanitarian aid workers who occasionally comb the slums to rescue children exposed to particularly harsh abuse or to pressure the hosts to pay for their restavek's schooling.

It is the prospect of an education that draws many children to Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitian and other urban centers, although few of those who take in restaveks -- paying the cost of their transportation and a nominal fee of a few dollars to the traders -- can afford to send them to school.

Secondary school costs about $145 for annual enrollment and $20 a month, plus uniforms and books, putting it out of reach for most Haitians, a majority of whom earn less than $1 a day. If not for the remittances sent by relatives abroad, Haitian schools would be empty, says Gernie Grandpierre, a matron at the Sixto refuge.

"Most of these children are not well treated," says Colette Lamothe, coordinator of an umbrella restavek program. "They seldom are sent to school, so they learn no other skills. They start this kind of work at 5 or 6 and never know any other life."

About 300 restaveks from Carrefour come daily to the Sixto shelter for a meal and two hours of schooling; a handful of other shelters also aid the enslaved children. The slum, home to more than 1 million Haitians, is thought to house more than 100,000 underage domestics.

Jeanty, the Sixto program director, acknowledges that aid projects like his are probably helping only about 1% of the children.

Most of the children who are sent to the capital to seek their fortunes disappear into rat-infested slums like Carrefour, La Saline and Cite Soleil -- shantytowns that house most of this city's 2.5 million people.

In Carrefour, berms of mud-encrusted trash line the rutted alleyways climbing up from Dessalines Boulevard, a one-lane link named for the slave revolt's victorious general. It is choked with battered cars and the rickety pickups called tap-taps that serve as buses. Jobless men and boys shovel sludge that flows down the denuded hillsides, clearing space for women to hawk their meager wares of bouillon cubes, batteries, plantain chips and root vegetables.

Families often have no idea where their servants come from, having bought them through intermediaries, Jeanty says.

"Often a kid gets out of a big family that can't take care of it, but I believe in my heart that it's better for them to stay with their suffering parents and brothers and sisters than be sent to strangers who treat them like animals," says Clarmei de Rameau, a cook at the Sixto shelter,who has worked there for a dozen years and rescued four restaveks by taking them into her home. "A mother's love can't be replaced."

Although most involved in helping the restaveks condemn official indifference, they also acknowledge that the practice does help feed children and brings them in out of the rain.

"It wouldn't be so common if there wasn't a need for their labor and their need to be fed and clothed," says Bernard of the Sixto shelter. "If child servitude was suddenly eradicated, there wouldn't be any place at all for these kids to go."

Those trying to help Haiti's enslaved children scoff at the government's claims that it is addressing the problem. "There has been a law against child labor for years, but it has never been enforced," says Jean Lherisson, head of Haiti Solidarity International. The human rights group warned last year that the problem was reaching epidemic proportions.

Lherisson argues that today's servants are even worse off than the children of slaves in the colonial era because then there were legal -- and honored -- prohibitions against using anyone younger than 10 for labor. Children as young as 4 now are sent here to work as servants, like Fredlin Alfred, a child thought to be that age found six months ago outside St. Vistal's mission.

Since slavery was overthrown by a 12-year revolt culminating in the proclamation of the first independent black republic on Jan. 1, 1804, "Haitian children have never been seen as subjects in the eyes of the state," Lherisson says of the country's 200-year succession of corrupt and abusive governments.

Lherisson says the rural poor continue to send their children into servitude because they cling to the illusion that they will have better chances in the city.

"Parents have no choice but to let their children dream. Here in Port-au-Prince, there's light and television and at least a hope of getting someone to pay for a child's education," he says. "You can't blame them for wanting to believe they are doing their kids a favor."

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Williams was recently on assignment in Port-au-Prince.

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