"Haiti’s Displaced Children" by Amelia Hintzen

Hintzen is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Miami. Her dissertation will examine family and childhood in the Haitian community in the Dominican Republic.

Hero of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture is said to have informally adopted several less-fortunate children, including one of his top generals, Moise Louverture, who passed as his nephew. This practice of informal adoption would become common in Haiti following independence. Often faced with persistent poverty, Haitian peasants relied on moving children between the homes of relatives or friends to help care for them when resources were limited. While many children were sent to live in homes nearby when times got tough, some were sent to the city. Parents expected that their children living in the city would work for a middle class or upper class family in exchange for education. At the turn of the twentieth century this arrangement was limited mainly to the sons and daughters of more financially stable peasant families who were able to provide gifts and even cash to their childen’s host family to insure they received an education.

However, during the twentieth century a growing rural population, environmental degradation, the impact of a nineteen-year United States occupation and local misrule threatened the peasant way of life. As the standard of living fell in rural areas, more and more peasants were forced to send their children to the city to live with unrelated middle class or lower class families because neither they nor their local kinship networks had the resources to care for them. Poor peasant children who work as domestic servants for urban families are often referred to as "restaveks," which comes from the French "to stay with." In 1998 UNICEF estimated that 300,000 of Haiti’s three million children lived in domestic servitude. Restaveks often live in what have been described as slave-like conditions: they perform back breaking labor for no pay, suffer harsh treatment, and seldom attend school.

Although the issue of child domestic service did not come to the attention of the international aid community until the late 1980s, many Haitians have mobilized in an attempt to protect these displaced children. During the 1940s, the Feminine League for Social Action petitioned to have child protective measures built into the new constitution. Haiti’s first law aimed at regulating child domestic service was passed in 1947. The law stated that children were not to begin working as domestics until they reached the age of twelve years old and were to be provided with adequate lodging, food, health care and access to education. While child domestic service has never been made illegal, prominent Haitians have continued to champion the cause of child domestics.

When François Duvalier came to power in 1957, however, he did little to alleviate the conditions that had made the movement of poor peasant children to urban households a necessary rural survival tactic. During the reign of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, the institutional problems that produced child domestic service became more serious. A new system of domestic servitude developed that funneled children of peasants who were unable to provide for all of their offspring into Port-au-Prince to live with families often not much better off than their own.

With the spread of child domestic service and the relative ease of acquiring a child domestic, lower middle class and poor families in urban areas increasingly view having a child domestic as a necessity, not a luxury. Most children that enter into domestic service completely lose ties with their biological parents. Children that do not have any contact with their family are more isolated and dependent on their host family. These children become defined solely by their labor, decreasing their standing in their household and society. Child domestic servants have become an integral part of the urban landscape in Port-au-Prince, and also part of the complicated problems the city faces. The child domestic service system in Haiti, however, is very different from what existed one hundred years ago. It remains to be seen how the system will continue to change, especially following the 2010 earthquake and the devastating impact it had on Port-au-Prince.