by Patrick Smikle
(IPS) MIAMI --
is a traditional Haitian practice
called 'Restavec' which, translated into standard English, means
"staying with." But its realities are not as harmless as the literal
translation this Haitian creole word would imply.
Restavec is a form of involuntary indentured servitude.
Desperately poor Haitian families (usually from the rural areas) unable to provide for all their minor children, give one or two away -- usually girls -- to better off families -- usually in the urban areas.
The children work for the receiving families as maids, in return for room and board, and if they are lucky and the family is benevolent...an education.
Sometimes they are treated well, are adopted into the family and benefit from the arrangement. But there is a consensus that these instances are rare and that physical and emotional abuse and exploitation are the norm.
A recent United Nations International Cultural and Education Fund (UNICEF)-sponsored study estimated that there are about 300,000 'Restavecs' in Haiti.
And now, Haitian-Americans who thought they had left the practice behind when they migrated to the U.S. are being confronted with evidence that it is here.
"It is slavery in modern times," says Jean Robert Lafortune who leads the Haitian Grassroots Coalition, an umbrella grouping of Haitian community development and advocacy organisations in South Florida. "It is unacceptable here. It is unacceptable in Haiti. It is unacceptable everywhere."
Lafortune was speaking at a news conference called by the Miami-based Coalition, to address the case of a 12-year old girl Haitian activists have named 'Hope.'
The child was six when her mother died. Relatives took her to a wealthy family in Port Au Prince, with whom her mother had worked as a maid. Three years later, the family brought her, illegally, to live with them in the United States.
The family operated a business which bought used-clothing in Florida to resell in Haiti.
Detailsof Hope's home situation emerged when she responded to a television advertisement for a Fort Lauderdale modelling agency. Charmed by the child's naivete, intake clerks at the agency developed a telephone relationship with her.
Over a period of weeks she told them of being forced to keep the family's large house in upscale Pembroke Pines, spotless. She told them of not being fed properly, being forced to eat in the garage, sleeping on the floor, not being allowed to attend school regularly and of not having adequate school supplies when she did attend.
It was in one of those conversations that she dropped a bombshell allegation. She said she had been repeatedly raped by a 20-year- old member of the family since she was nine-years-old.
It took three weeks of repeated telephone calls but the clerks at the modelling agency, one of whom was an ex-school teacher and sensitive to child abuse cases, got the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Pembroke Pines police to investigate.
Indications are that the initial investigation was at best, cursory. Investigators visited the home, questioned the child in the presence of family members and accepted their explanation that Hope had made up the story in retaliation for being punished by her "step-mother."
Hope's next call to the intake clerks at the modelling agency told of being severely beaten after the investigators left and being called a "whore" and a "slut." She said the family also threatened to send her back to Haiti.
Bruises on the child, her unkempt appearance, her irregular attendance, her lack of school supplies, her inattentiveness, and her inability to eat even when coaxed by ancillary staff, attracted the attention of school authorities who also sought the intervention of DCF and the police.
Badgered by the principal at Hope's school and by the intake clerks at the modelling agency, police took the child to a sexual assault treatment centre where it was discovered that not only was she sexually active, but that she had contracted a venereal disease.
Warrants were issued for the arrest of the 20-year-old member of the family on sexual battery charges and for two other members on charges related to having brought Hope to the United States illegally and keeping her in involuntary servitude.
"Involuntary servitude is a federal violation that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years," FBI spokesman Terry Nelson, told journalists here.
The family is thought to have since fled to Haiti.
Haitian-American activists are asking why it took so long for the State social work agencies to act. They have asked why police detectives and Department of Children and Families' investigators interviewed the child in the home where the abuse allegedly took place and in the presence of the accused abusers.
"We are outraged that all the systems that were supposed to protect this little girl failed her," Marleine Basteien, who leads 'Haitian Women of Miami' told journalists at the news conference. "Every way you look at it, there is evidence that everybody failed that child. Why didn't they take action sooner? Why did it take so long for someone to notice the girl?"
She told IPS in a later interview that the reason may have been "cultural insensitivity." That Hope is Haitian played a role in the police and social work agencies not following up vigorously on the case, she said. "Cultural issues came into play. DCF didn't believe her. The police didn't believe her. I don't think they were culturally sensitive. I think that played a role in how they handled the case."
The Haitian-American community activists have now turned their attention to the rehabilitation of Hope, determining how widespread is the practice of Restavec in the U.S. and to taking steps to eliminate it.
Meetings have been scheduled with the social work agencies to ensure that she is placed in a "culturally sensitive situation, one that takes cognizance of the fact that she has been abused," Basteien told IPS.
On the question of the prevalence of the practice, she could not be specific, but recalled the case of 12-year old Marie Joseph, who was shot dead while selling at a Miami flea market in 1996. "She was a Restavec," Basteien said.
The Haitian American Foundation has logged three cases which were dealt with through the intervention of Executive Director, Leonie Hermantin.
Another Coalition member, Haitian Support Inc., says it receives an average of three Restavec related calls a month.
The activists have gone on the offensive to educate the Haitian American community that the practice is wrong and to encourage those who encounter instances to report them. "We know that it's a very shameful practice but somebody has got to speak out and say this practice must be brought to the world's attention," says Gepsie Metellus.
"We need to have a system in place so that we can prevent this from happening again." Added Leonie Hermantin..."We want to encourage people not to be passive about it.
"But how do you fight it without eradicating poverty," asks Basteien rhetorically. "How do you prevent a mother with nine children from trying to give one or two away. Poverty is at the base, at the root of these problems and unless you fight that, unless you provide these families with alternatives, then you will always have the Restavec."
December 12, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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