MAXWELL:  From Haiti to America in servitude

10/27/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



People who do not live in South Florida or pay attention to local media probably have not heard of Charlyne _ the name the Miami Herald gave to a 16-year-old girl in this inland Broward County city between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Charlyne belongs to a brutalized group of children who get less attention in the United States and elsewhere than do black slaves in the African nation of Sudan. The United Nations also has slighted these children. And the Florida Department of Children and Families is just now waking up to its responsibility to protect these youngsters.

This problem has been ignored because Haitians, especially female children, do not evoke deep sympathy and popular humanitarianism like people in other parts of the world.

But Charlyne’s story is compelling. Like thousands of other children in Haiti and the United States, she is a restavec _ the Creole term for the turn-of-the-century institution of involuntary child servitude in Haiti. More than a decade ago, monied Haitian immigrants nationwide secretly imported the restavec system to the United States. South Florida has the highest number of restavecs in America.

Three weeks ago, the system came to light after authorities discovered another enslaved 12-year-old girl, this time in the home of a Pembroke Pines couple. According to Haitian-American human rights activists, the girl was forced to perform around-the-clock household chores without pay. In return, she received room and board.

Children take these jobs because their parents are told that their children will be blessed with a better life, including savings for college and other paths out of poverty. But the children rarely receive anything resembling the promises. Instead, besides being forced into hard labor, many are physically and emotionally abused.

The Pembroke Pines girl, for example, was sexually abused, Leonie Hermantin, an executive with the Haitian American Foundation, told the Herald. “The family clearly brought her from Haiti to be placed in servitude,” she said.

Hermantin’s comment understates the problem. Her colleague, Jocelyn McCall, head of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York, said: “Anything goes as far as ill-treatment. The rape of young girls is far more common than usually acknowledged in Haiti or Haitian immigrant communities.”

Department of Children and Families top brass have dropped the ball with these children but have promised to do better. The problem, of course, is that a restavec, like the black slave of old, is an invaluable piece of property, and, in most cases, everyone, including African-American big shots, will remain silent.

According to the last reliable report, more than 240,000 restavecs were in Haiti in 1990. Because Haiti is and has been the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere for decades, people have grasped for any possible relief. Many of the results have been deleterious. A main result is that many parents, unable to make ends meet, believe the only way to ensure good lives for their children, especially their girls, is to ship them to the United States as restavecs.

“The restavec is probably the ugliest instance of a whole lot of ugly things that are the result of desperation, poverty and marginalization, not having any recourse,” Miami Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Wenski told the Herald.

The underlying sin is that Haitian government officials in Miami will not discuss the problem. I tried three times to speak, for example, with Consul General Jean-Gabriel Augustin but was rebuffed.

His refusal to speak underscores the horror of the restavec system _ as manifested in the treatment of Charlyne. When the child was 5, her mother, then living in Port-au-Prince, contracted her daughter to a family. The mother immigrated to the United States, leaving Charlyne behind.

At 5 o’clock each morning, Charlyne told the Herald, she fetched water from a stream, cooked meals and washed clothes. If she displeased her masters, she was beaten with a leather whip. Eventually, she immigrated to South Florida to live with the mother who abandoned her in Port-au-Prince.

And how is Charlyne faring?

Herald writers April Witt and Jacqueline Charles describe the child’s condition: “The lash marks on her legs and back have healed. But she’s withdrawn, has few friends and hasn’t bonded with the mother who left her behind to seek a better life in Florida. Charlyne speaks little, but expresses her rage at abandonment, at times slashing her mother’s clothing and furniture with knives and scissors.”