New to Haiti: Foster care for the nation’s parentless kids

 An orphan boy at Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti  (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

An orphan boy at Nest of Hope orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti  (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Like roughly a quarter of Haiti’s children, 11-year-old Franchina has spent much of her short life without parents.

Her mother dead, her father in prison, Franchina was placed in a state-run orphanage as a toddler, remaining illiterate year after year and seemingly destined for a hard life in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.

But this year, Franchina’s fortunes took a hopeful turn.

She has benefited from the newfound resolution of Haiti’s government to improve the deplorable status of the country’s children, and more specifically from a partnership between the state child welfare agency and several international child-service organizations.

In a country and region with no tradition of formal foster-care systems, they are recruiting and training Haitians who buy into the idea that being a foster parent is a noble mission.

“There’s a certain satisfaction to it,” said Jeannes Pierre, 61, a Baptist pastor in Port-au-Prince who is now Franchina’s foster father. “It’s doing something extraordinary.”

 Franchina 11, plays with a cat at her foster home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

Franchina 11, plays with a cat at her foster home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

In her orphanage, Franchina shared a bunkroom with many other children. Now she has a bedroom to herself, small and simple but enlivened by a colorful stack of books. To her delight, her foster parents taught her how to read within weeks of her arrival.

“It’s like removing the darkness from the eyes of a child,” Pierre said.

The Pierres do not know how long Franchina will be with them. “We want to keep her as long as possible,” Pierre said. And Franchina, it seems, would agree.

Asked what she likes best about her new life, at first she was too shy to respond.

Then she confided: “I like everything.”

Many of Haiti’s youths live on the streets; hundreds of thousands are domestic workers in other families’ homes. Franchina was among the 30,000 or so consigned to orphanage-like institutions ranging in quality from adequate to abominable.

By itself, foster care won’t come close to resolving the plight of Haiti’s children. Long-term solutions are needed that for now are beyond the government’s financial reach — notably, better educational opportunities and social supports so poor families don’t feel compelled to place their children in orphanages or domestic servitude in the first place.

But the new program is cited by Haitian and foreign experts as evidence of the government’s determination to modernize and strengthen an array of child-oriented policies and practices — and lessen reliance on foreign-based charities and mission groups.

“There’s no magic bullet, no one solution,” said Marc Vincent, who heads UNICEF’s operations in Haiti. “But it’s important to recognize the steps the government is taking — it is passionate about making things better.”

By DAVID CRARY // Associated Press