A few years ago Rebecca and I met Angelina, a young woman in a Haitian orphanage. She was 23 years old. As she shared stories of her life with us it became painfully obvious that this young woman had lived her entire life in that orphanage. Sadder yet, in 23 years, she left the compound walls only a few times. When I asked why she lived at the orphanage she said, “I don’t have any friends out there. I don’t have any family. When I walked out the door, I wouldn’t know if I should go left or right”.
The damage done to children who grow without a permanent, safe family has been clearly documented over the past few decades. Most recently, the research of Harvard’s Dr. Jack Shonkroff dramatically demonstrates the crushing effect on a child’s brain development and the 10-year study by University of Maryland’s Dr. Nathan Fox shows the permanent damage to virtually every aspect of a child’s physical and emotional well-being. Despite this and other evidence, much of which was presented at last December’s Summit on Children Without Family Care, untold numbers of children continue to suffer permanent damage. And for those children who escape the trap of the sex trade or child labor, they, like Angelina, grow into adulthood unable to join society, unable to care for themselves…unable to go left or right.
On this trip to Haiti, I visited Rene, a young man Rebecca and I first met two years ago. Rene has spent 13 years in an orphanage. In only a few years he will be out on his own – that is if he as a 15-year-old teenager is able to behave well enough to be allowed to stay at the orphanage. As our van left the orphanage grounds, I wondered to whom he would go as he walked through the heavy steel door of the compound for the last time. I wondered if Rene would go left or right on the dusty mountain road. And I wondered how he would get the frequent medical care his hydrocephalus required to keep him alive.
When I visit children, when I hear their voices tell their own stories, when I see children whose ears have been chewed by rats, I can’t help but think we are all doing something wrong. Thousands of non-profits and churches and governments run thousands of programs for children. The US government spends billions of dollars in international aid for children each year. Tens of thousands of volunteers and professionals work every day to help children. Yet Angelia and Rene are just two of the estimated 100,000 children living in over 700 orphanages in Haiti. Simply put – family life for children is not one of the priorities for the vast majority of NGOs or governments – even the United States government.
There is no US government policy which instructs our foreign aid to ensure children live, grow and thrive in a family. We have offices for hunger, trafficking, HIV Aids, but none that protects children from life without their family.
Maybe we are not doing something wrong. Maybe we are not doing enough of what is right.