Haiti child deaths: US church faces neglect allegations

US church faces neglect allegations after Haiti child deaths

15 people were killed in the blaze in February. Representative image/iStock

For a limestone mantel from the Waldorf Astoria, the church that owns the Olde Good Things antique stores asks for USD 8,500.

But for the death of each child in a fire at a home it ran in Haiti, parents said the same church offered to pay just USD 50 to USD 100 in family compensation — along with USD 150 for funeral-related costs such as new clothes and transportation.

The wealth of the Church of Bible Understanding in the United States has long stood in contrast with the shoddiness of its two children's homes in Haiti, which have faced years of infractions and failed two state inspections.

But the gap came into even sharper focus on Feb. 13, when the fire killed 13 children and two adult caretakers described by the church's lawyer as disabled. Authorities suspect the fire started because the home used candles instead of a functioning generator or battery in a country where power failures are frequent.

The deaths have devastated parents like Eustache Arismé, 33, who put his two daughters in the home shortly after they were born because he has a withered left arm and cannot find work. His daughters Nedjie, 4, and Vanise, 3, died in the fire at the home, which is known as an orphanage in Haiti although many children have at least one living parent.

Like Arismé's daughters, the children in such “orphanages” are usually handed over, often as babies, by parents who struggle to support them and want them to at least get food and shelter. Parents generally keep custody and are allowed to visit.

''At first, I was happy to see the children growing up in the orphanage. But now I profoundly regret my decision,'' Arismé said.

''When we put our children in the orphanage, the owners welcomed us. Now, after this tragedy, they send a lawyer to deal with us.'' The lawyer for the church, Osner Fevry, said it is being unfairly singled out by critics in Haiti and overseas. The church may send less money to Haiti than some people would like, he said.

But many other US groups solicit donations in the name of needy Haitians and only send a fraction to the country after staff salaries and overhead, he added.

“It happens to hundreds and thousands of American organizations working in Haiti, raising millions of dollars in the names of churches and NGOs in Haiti,” he said.

Fevry said the church members running the homes left for the US a few days after the fire not to avoid prosecution, but because they were hounded by police and local media. Along with compensation and spending money for the parents, the church is assuming the costs of funerals for the 15 victims.

“I don't think the church can endorse legal responsibility, but moral responsibility, yes,” Fevry acknowledged. “Morally, how come there was a candle to get light for those kids?” The homes have run into problems before.

A series of inspections beginning in November 2012 found they didn't meet minimum health and safety standards, with overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and insufficient trained staff. Haitian authorities stripped them of accreditation.

When the church members brought in outside experts, one declared them “completely clueless about what is needed to take care of that many babies.”

“I'm shocked,'' she said. “That no one has died.” The orphanages failed another round of state inspections in 2017 but hired Fevry to fight closure, according to Haitian child welfare authorities. They said closing an orphanage can take months or years, particularly if the management has money or influence.

Through its US-based spokeswoman, the church declined to comment on specific allegations of neglect and mistreatment at its children's homes in Haiti.

“We are devastated by the tragic fire that took the life of our children at our Haitian orphanage. Words would fail to express our immense grief and heartbreak,” the church said in a written statement. “We are taking this very seriously and are moving forward to help all of those affected by this horrific accident."

On the night of Feb. 13, 61 children were sleeping inside the church's two-story home in the town of Kenscoff in the mountains above the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, according to the Institute of Social Welfare. A 16-year-old boy living there told authorities that he and a caretaker went out to buy candles, which they lit in each of the rooms filled with children, then went to bed.

A short time later, around 9 p.m., the smell of smoke filed the orphanage. Thirteen children, ages 3 to 18, died, along with a 39-year-old woman and a 34-year-old man.

Among them was Tania Caristan's 6-year-old son, Ricardo.

Caristan makes a living selling items on the street and washing neighbors' clothes. She moved back in with her parents, and said she had to leave Ricardo with her estranged husband.

It was only two months later that she learned her former husband had put the boy in a Church of Bible Understanding home. Shocked, she went there with a copy of the birth certificate to get her baby back.

But a white man told her through an interpreter that she couldn't take him because she was not one of the people who had given him to the orphanage, she said. (AP) RS RS RS