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UNICEF works to reunite children with their families in Haiti

2010-03-23

By Nora Nonet

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 24 2010 – We met eight-year-old Jefferson (not his real name) at a reception centre in the heart of Haiti’s shattered capital. Jefferson had spent two weeks at the centre, one of perhaps thousands of children who became separated from their families in the aftermath of the massive earthquake here on January 12.

Jefferson’s case made headlines around the world. He was among the 33 Haitian children who a group of US missionaries attempted to take out of the country on January 29. They were intercepted by police as they tried to cross the border into the Dominican Republic. Authorities said that the group didn't have proper legal documentation and that many of the children were not orphans.

Several weeks after those dramatic events, Jefferson was interviewed by UNICEF-trained social workers tasked with registering cases of separated children.

Important details
Some Haitian children were so traumatized by the earthquake that they couldn’t even remember their last names. It’s in dealing with such children that the role of the trained interviewers becomes so crucial.

© UNICEF video
UNICEF child protection workers talking with Jefferson's interim host family in front of a makeshift centre in Port-au-Prince.

At the beginning of his interview, Jefferson was understandably shy and uncommunicative. After a while, he began to relax, and to talk.

It quickly became clear that Jefferson remembered the details of the day when he was taken away by the American missionaries. More important, he also recalled his mother’s name and the address of his former home. Encouraged by the social workers, Jefferson was even able to describe the meals his mother used to make for him.

Tracing family members
“Sometimes it's easy to trace the family,” said UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Benoit Fournier. “It depends on the age of the child. If he or she remembers his mother’s name, that’s a big help. Or maybe a neighbour can help and give some information, for example, if the mother died, or if she moved to another area or another part of the country.

“Then we ask our teams and counterparts over there to trace the family using that information,” he added.
 
But the process of reuniting children with their parents or other close relatives is slow and painstaking. To date, child protection workers have identified and registered more than 500 separated children – with thousands more estimated in and around Port-au-Prince.

‘A family environment’
While many children end up in residential care centres, others have been taken in by foster families – a solution that, according to UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Marie de la Soudière, is better for them in several ways.

“A child needs to be in a family environment, where he can play with other children, and where adults can take care of him,” said Ms. de la Soudière. “Especially during emergencies, an orphanage can turn children into true orphans, even if their parents are still out there.”

As a result of the kinds of family-reunification efforts detailed above, Jefferson and all 33 children in his group have now been returned to their relatives and regular caregivers. Helping children like these find their families again is a critical part of UNICEF’s work in the ongoing humanitarian relief effort in Haiti.

For further information:

Stefanie Carmichael, Communications Specialist, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8866; Cell: (647) 500-4230, scarmichael@unicef.ca.
Tiffany Baggetta, Director, Communications and Brand, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8892; Cell: (647) 308-4806, tbaggetta@unicef.ca.