PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Watson Saint Fleur is 12 but he’s never attended a day of school. He’s toiled in hardship doing household chores and peddling plastic bags of drinking water along city streets noisy with motorbikes and trucks.
He’s one of Haiti’s “restaveks,” a term to describe children whose poor parents hand them over to others in hopes they’ll have opportunities to escape a dead-end life or at least get more food. It’s a practice deeply ingrained in Haiti, where families frequently have numerous kids despite crushing poverty.
For many, that better life never arrives. Many are exploited as domestic servants in households only slightly better off, working long hours in exchange for food and a spot to sleep on a shack’s floor. An untold number endure regular beatings, are deprived of an education and are victims of sexual abuse. And their numbers have been growing sharply as urban slums expand and poverty in the countryside deepens.
Studies indicate the population of child domestic workers rose from some 172,000 in 2002 to roughly 286,000 in 2014 — four years after an earthquake flattened much of Port-au-Prince and outlying areas, killing as many as 300,000 and leaving some 1.5 million people homeless.
Now child advocates in the hemisphere’s poorest country are bracing for yet another increase of youngsters like Watson driven into unpaid servitude.
The Trump administration is weighing an end to a humanitarian program that has protected nearly 60,000 Haitians from deportation since that earthquake — a “temporary protected status” based on the assumption their homeland could not absorb them following the disaster. If the program known as TPS is not extended, people could be sent back to Haiti starting in January.
Such mass deportation would cut off remittances that keep many Haitian families fed in a country where deep poverty is the primary force behind the restavek practice.
“There’s no doubt an end to TPS will create far more restaveks,” said prominent Haitian child advocate Gertrude Sejour.
Each morning, Watson wakes from his spot on the floor to clean the house for his washerwoman employer before taking to the streets to sell water. He gets smaller portions at meals. He bathes the woman’s 7-year-old boy to prepare him for the local school he’s never attended. He helps set up birthday parties for the woman’s two sons, but has never once gotten a party himself.
He’s fuzzy about how he ended up at the woman’s house, only knowing his mother died in his hometown of Petit Goave. He never knew his father.
“When she hits me, she says: ‘Your mother died, why don’t you die, too?'” Watson said outside the Maurice Sixto Foundation, where child advocates are working with the government social services agency to move him to a group home for vulnerable boys.
Social researchers in Haiti say the cultural practice is complex, even though it’s often decried as a form of modern-day slavery. A 2015 study commissioned partly by Unicef found that roughly 25 percent of Haitian children between 5 and 17 live apart from their parents, though most live with relations and not all are child domestic workers.
An estimated 30,000 children also live in residential centers in Haiti. Though often described as “orphans,” the vast majority of the children have at least one living parent and have been placed in the often poorly regulated centers because their families cannot support them or pay for their schooling, child welfare advocates say.
“In some regions of the country it’s even considered an honor to send their children to the city,” said Mariana Rendon, protection officer with Haiti’s office of the International Organization for Migration.
Glenn Smucker, a cultural anthropologist known for extensive work on Haiti, said that children staying with people other than their parents are more vulnerable to abuse and heavier workloads, but that their treatment varies a great deal.
“The longstanding practice of placing children outside the home generally includes an understanding that the receiving household will send the child to school in exchange for doing household chores, in a social and cultural context where children are expected to do work whether they live at home or with others,” Smucker said.
For some kids, the arrangement works out. They’re treated well, often with extended families, and caretakers pay their school fees.
Four years ago, Diana Petit Homme, the second youngest of seven children, was sent by her struggling mother to Port-au-Prince from the northern city of Cap-Haitien. The 14-year-old is now attending a Catholic school and has dreams of becoming a nurse.
“I know my mother doesn’t have the ability to take care of me,” Diana said matter-of-factly.
But many of the youngsters are filled with confusion, sadness and anger when they think of their parents.
About a year ago, Dafnee Beauge’s mother left her with a stranger in a two-room shack, saying she was heading to the neighboring Dominican Republic to earn money. The 12-year-old hasn’t heard a word from her since.
Dafnee daydreams she can magically communicate with her absent mother, imploring her: “Come get me.”
While the youngsters are highly vulnerable to abusive caretakers, that is considered an acceptable risk for many families in a country where over 2.5 million live under the national extreme poverty line of $1.23 per day.
Officials say reintegrating restavek kids with a biological parent has had very limited success. The vulnerability that caused the child to be sent away in the first place, shortage of food and no money to pay school fees, often remains.
“A parent will say: ‘We can’t take them back, leave the child where they are,'” said Diem Pierre, a spokesman with the government social services agency Institute of Social Welfare and Research.
It’s clear that abusive child labor only perpetuates an endless cycle of illiteracy and poverty.
Stephanie Daniel, 20, spent her childhood at a stranger’s shack in Carrefour and is now struggling after years of isolation and abuse. When her employer discovered she had gotten pregnant at 14 following a rape outside a church, the woman kicked Stephanie out.
She’s since given up her child to a friend. Never having been shown love herself, she struggled to bond with the boy. “He didn’t like me so I gave him away,” she said.