Haiti closes orphanage for child neglect

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CARREFOUR, Haiti (AP) – An orphanage whose director was accused by U.S. missionaries of not feeding children and selling donated goods was closed Friday in a rare crackdown by Haitian authorities.

Police officers and child welfare officials sealed off the unpaved street in front of the Son of God orphanage and the children who lived there were loaded into a UNICEF bus and taken to new homes.

Diem Pierre, general coordinator of the Institute of Welfare and Research, said the government closed the orphanage permanently because inspectors found children were living in unsanitary conditions. He said the inspection was prompted by complaints from U.S. missionaries.

“We found kids with health problems,” Pierre told The Associated Press. “They looked as though they hadn’t eaten. They looked malnourished.”

Such enforcement actions are rare in Haiti. Officials complain that child welfare workers lack the resources and training to investigate the several hundred orphanages and group homes in a country in which many parents are forced to abandon their children because of poverty or as they seek work abroad.

Haiti has an estimated 50,000 children in orphanages, though many have at least one parent still alive. Tens of thousands of Haitian children are also forced to work as domestic servants or prostitutes, particularly over the border in the Dominican Republic.

The government shut down a group home in the Port-au-Prince area in May only after U.S. federal prosecutors indicted the director, Matthew Andrew Carter of Brighton, Michigan, on charges of child sexual abuse. He was extradited to Miami, Florida, to face charges.

Pierre said only one other orphanage had been closed by the Haitian government in recent years.

The Son of God orphanage is a three-story building in Carrefour, a densely packed and dusty city along the edge of the sea to the west of downtown Port-au-Prince. The director, Maccene Hypolitte, was arrested in July on suspicion of involvement in child trafficking based on allegations presented by U.S. missionaries. Under the Haitian legal system he has been jailed pending a judicial investigation and has not been charged.

The report compiled by a coalition of five U.S. Christian missions and the aid group Catholic Relief Services alleges that Hypolitte had offered to let a missionary take a child away to receive medical care in exchange for a payment of $1,250, a figure that was later raised to $2,000. The missionary, working with Haitian authorities, returned later with part of the payment and Hypolitte was arrested.

His wife, Marie Andree Hypolitte, has been running the orphanage with the couple’s 30-year-old daughter, and she denied any wrongdoing. She the American missionaries have accused them of trafficking and abuse because they want to take over the business.

The wife said that the poor conditions of the orphanage, including dirty mattresses on the floor, holes in the concrete walls and the smell of urine, were proof that the family was not involved in any criminal activity.

“If I were selling kids, would this institution look like this?” she said, her voice choked with tears.

As she spoke, half a dozen toddlers with sunken eyes and patchy hair, signs of apparent malnutrition, wandered around the home.

The U.S. missionaries who raised the original complaints welcomed reports of an imminent closure. Seth Barnes, executive director of one of the groups, Adventures in Missions, based in Gainesville, Georgia; said he and workers at six other organizations learned of the problems after visiting Son of God last year to check on donations of clothes and other goods and to see if the children needed any help.

Barnes said they found that donated clothes had gone missing and donated food disappeared from storerooms even as the children appeared to be going hungry. He said some kids simply vanished without any records or adequate explanation from the staff of the orphanage.

Barnes described conditions as “horrific” and said they began complaining to local authorities.

“We knew as of a year ago that there was a serious problem,” he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.