My controversial orphanage post

This is a post I've sat down to write at least once a year, every year that I have been in Haiti. Yet every year I have chosen not to post what I’ve written because I didn’t want to accidentally offend anyone. By now I’ve come to realize that you will almost always offend someone and that’s okay. So today, I’m going for it.

About two weeks ago I was asked to give a tour of our organization, Second Mile Haiti. The group requesting the tour didn’t given me much information prior to our appointment so I was unaware of their intentions before meeting them. As the tour progressed, I worked out that they were interested in how we approach sustainability and gardening, and that they were in the process of starting something new here in Haiti. This in and of itself, isn’t a problem at all. I’m happy to show others what has worked for us and I enjoyed giving the tour. Towards the end, I asked them to tell me more about their organization. 

What they proceeded to say is something I feel like I’ve heard, in one form or another, at least 100 times during my six years in Haiti. And it doesn’t get any easier to hear as time goes on.


“We’re starting an orphanage."


“Oh I see,” I said.


“Yes. We’ll be taking in 150 orphans and we want the orphans to learn to garden.”


I think I just nodded my head a couple of times, probably with wide eyes and a bit of an eyebrow raise. It’s the look I give people when I think they've just said something ridiculous but I don’t want to come right out and say it.


Here’s what was honestly running through my head in that moment.


Where are they going to find these so called “orphans.” Take them in? Will they just pull them off the streets? Engage in door-to-door solicitation? Make announcements in churches and community groups?


I’m confused.  


Why are we coming down to start more orphanages? Haven’t we learned?  


What’s the long-term goal here?  


And “orphans,” really? Is there really not an alternative word they could use for the children they plan to “take-in?” How about calling them children? Or better yet, calling the children by their names: Ricardo, Emmanuel, Roseline, etc… Because if you don’t even know a child’s name, then you don’t know enough about his story to call him an orphan. Saying “children from vulnerable situations” would be better maybe, more accurate at least.


The United Nation’s definition of an orphan is: a child who has lost at least one of their parents. According to this definition only 20% of children living in orphanages in Haiti are actually orphans. It’s been estimated that 80% of children living in orphanages in Haiti have at least one, if not both, living parents.



They told me the name of the area where they plan to build their orphanage, just 20 minutes from Second Mile Haiti by moto. 

It’s a beautiful area, an agricultural haven. Amy and I take our bikes there sometimes to enjoy its beauty. After we’ll stop in the city center to buy fried goat and local beer from the vendors. We were once told that the area receives more rainfall each year than any other area in the region. In a country where 85% percent of people make their money from agriculture, it would suggest that people in this area are better off than most. So again, where exactly were they going to find all these orphans?

But back to gardening. And teaching orphans to garden.


I was slightly frustrated. Haiti, a country the size of the state of Maryland, already has more than 750 orphanages. Yes. It’s true. Let’s take a minute to let that sink in.

I did some research hoping to add some perspective to an otherwise arbitrary number. In the state of Maryland there are 304 McDonalds restaurants, 54 Walmart stores, and 156 Starbucks coffee houses which means there are still more orphanages in Haiti than these top three chains combined.  

It’s crazy. I know.

If you think that most of the children living in these orphanages eventually leave Haiti via intercountry adoption. You’d be wrong. Of Haiti’s 750 orphanages, less than 30 have the legal standing necessary to facilitate international adoptions. In 2015, only 143 of more than 30,000 children living in orphanages were adopted to the United States.


We have to stop building more orphanages.

There. I said it.

There are plenty here already. They have been built with the best of intentions. But no matter how we sugar coat them with promises of three meals a day, a good education, and technical opportunities like gardening and sewing, institutionalization is simply damaging to children.

Are you ready for the VERY honest truth? When you tell someone here that you want to give them money to start an orphanage they won’t want to disappoint you. And if you tell your Haitian partner that you want your facility to care for 150 orphans, I guarantee that children will be taken from their families. Where else? Your Haitian partner will fill the orphanage to make you happy. He will fill the orphanage in order to receive the financial support that you promised.

So maybe you find that last part a little harsh. Let me amend by saying that I fully support places that help children get the care they need. I have lived here long enough to know there will always be children who require the love and care of a family outside of the one they were born into. There are many loving families all over the world who are ready with open arms. And that’s beautiful. I’m not saying there is anything innately wrong with adoption. But there have been a few countries recently, that believe the first place to look is right next door with same-culture families and in-country foster care and adoption. We know more now. We know now that international adoption specifically, perpetuates the unnecessary separation of children from their families. Adoption is a lucrative business. It creates a demand for orphanages which creates a demand for children to fill them. In Guatamala, the above scenario became so pronounced that the country closed its doors to international adoption while adoption facilitators and the people stalked vulnerable families were tried for criminal offense.  

Many people think that since we started Second Mile, with the intentions of keeping families together, that we don’t believe in child care facilities. That’s not true. We just believe that they don’t have to look like orphanages to offer hope and good care.

We stand beside organizations here in Haiti that provide exceptional pre-natal care and birthing services so that children aren’t orphaned when mothers give birth. We stand beside organizations giving respite care to families of children with special needs and those who are assisting children who have grown up in orphanages access education and opportunity once they “age-out” of those facilities. We stand beside organizations that are helping to reinforce the capacity of local health facilities to improve care and access for people living with HIV, which in turn gives parents living with the disease the chance to see their children through to adulthood. We stand beside organizations that create jobs and offer educational services for adults and those that provide access to credit and capital for business. There’s really so much you can do to help a child. And even more you can do to help the communities that care for them.

So yes. Help a family in a time of need.

Yes. Educate.  

Yes. Provide access to income-generating activity. 

Do these things  so that the families most at risk for turning to an orphanage don’t have to.  

We opened the doors to Second Mile in 2013, creating programs to help those most at risk for turning to orphanages, the  families of children with severe acute malnutrition.

Since then we’ve had the opportunity to work in cooperation with the organization that gave us our introduction to Haiti, the crèche, Children of the Promise, where Amy and I worked as volunteers for 18 and 11 months from 2010 - 2011. It is well-known in the region as an “orphelinat,” an orphanage, and I would be lying if I said we didn’t start Second Mile Haiti as a reaction to what was happening there: we saw parents giving up their children in desperation and it moved us to leave the organization and create an alternative. Now that one exists, that "orphelinat," COTP, has been able to virtually stop the admission of children for the purpose of malnutrition rehabilitation and focus instead on improving outcomes for the abandoned children and children with special needs already in their care. As of May 2016, COTP has referred eighty-six children and their caregivers to our facility. In each instance, the guardian of a vulnerable child had come to their gates looking for a solution. Rather than remove these children from the care of their guardians, COTP took the time to investigate the family’s situation, doing enough of a background check to realize that the child had some form of caregiver support, be it a mom or dad, an aunt or a grandma. Good on them. 

By referring these families to our program, they gave them the chance to keep their kids and gave them a shot at the education, tools, and resources we offer to improve their situation, or at least try. 

What if all families were given this chance? Would it mean less children in orphanages?

I am going to leave you with a scenario.


Okay, picture this. You have a loving partner and the two of you have got a great thing going. You’ve been together for fifteen years and you have four amazing kids together, ages 3, 6, 8, and 12.

It’s a Friday night and you decide to go on a date together. It’s going to be sushi first, followed by the new James Bond movie.

As you are driving to the restaurant, you are involved in a major motor vehicle accident. Both you and your partner do not survive the accident. Take a moment to envision the face of the person who would jump in for you and immediately begin caring for your children if the above scenario were to actually happen. Would it be your sister or brother? Your mom or dad? Your best friends? If you are a parent, I bet you even have a document in place stating who should have guardianship of your children should an accident take place. I don’t believe you would ever intend for you kids to be placed in an orphanage. I don’t believe the thought would even cross your mind. 

There’s something important we are missing when we justify orphanages because of the death and poverty we associate with Haiti. In Haiti, there are sisters, brothers, grandmas and grandpas who can, will, and do take the children of deceased loved ones into their hearts and homes. We’ve even had the privilege of helping caregivers at Second Mile Haiti who have no blood relation to the child they are mothering.

Why is it that in the United States, when a family is going through a difficult situation, what they need is help with groceries, subsidized lunches, a loan or forgiveness of their medical bills, but when a family in a “developing country" is going through a difficult time, we assume they need someone else to look after their children?

Perhaps not every family can be preserved. Perhaps not every orphan can be prevented, but at least let’s try.

Come to Haiti and I believe you will find it to be extremely family-oriented, unless of course, you have a very limited view of family. You and I won’t always agree on what Haiti needs. You might say business and government. I might say healthcare and education. We’d both be right. I believe we can agree, however, that Haiti doesn’t need more orphanages.

If you are working in Haiti in some capacity and you encounter a child you believe is an orphan, look for existing family members and empower them to care for that child. Provide social assistance in the form of school sponsorship and technical training for parents, or refer them to places like Fonkoze (available in nearly every single community in Haiti) where they can receive all the help they need to take out a loan and start a business. If these are not options, refer them to one of the handful of registered locations, specifically one that supports family reunification where possible. Look for a place that’s trying to make the whole orphanage thing look more like family for the children who are already living there.

If you want to start an organization in Haiti start one that creates jobs, lots of them. Better yet, start a business. And if you encounter a person, any person, struggling to care of a child with severe malnutrition send them our way. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we can help the family through the crisis and send them off stronger and better equipped. Our model might be an odd one, but it can work.

So, can we agree to stop building new orphanages now?

Instead, let’s build more Second Miles and focus on keeping families together. Let’s celebrate the various definitions of family and let’s let our programs in Haiti be inspired by this diversity.  

Let’s figure out how to work together.

Second Mile Graduates, May 2016

Second Mile Graduates, May 2016

Written by Jenn Schenk, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Second Mile Haiti