The Littlest Slaves in Haiti (Debbie Sontag, 1990)

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The Littlest Slaves in Haiti (Debbie Sontag, 1990)

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Miami Herald, 30 Dec 1990

THE LITTLEST SLAVES IN HAITI:
IF A CHILD IS ONLY POOR AND HUNGRY, HE IS ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
By: Debbie Sontag

Twelve-year-old Judith Marcena is running for her life in ripped, pink plastic sandals. On the busy Route des Dalles, she jumps over charcoal piles, elbows past avocado vendors, leaps over garbage and slides through mud.

The devil is chasing her. He's red with a pointy tail and pointy mustache. But his scowling face is very young, the face of the little boy that used to be Judith's master, in her last house.

The devil-boy is taunting Judith, cursing her with the bluntest, most humiliating word for what she is. "Restavek! You're worthless, no good. You're a restavek! Restavek!"

The nights that Judith has that dream, she says, are the nights she goes to sleep too exhausted to pray to God. The following mornings, Judith invariably awakes with a fright and, for a change, doesn't mind getting up at 5 a.m., the typical restavek waking hour. That's an hour before anyone else rises in her one-room house, which sits on a Port-au-Prince hilltop beneath Fort Mercredi, in a shantytown called Under the Fort.

Those mornings, Judith springs off the dirt floor where she sleeps below the beds of the family she serves. She slips into a red dress stained with dirt and sweat and gets right to her first task. As the other kids snore, Judith pushes aside the corrugated tin that covers the doorway, then crouches to lift the bucket in the corner.

She walks outside into a morning darkness of barking dogs and crowing roosters, working her way downhill to a mound of trash.

There she spills the bucket and pauses as dawn breaks beneath her, over the harbor of Port-au-Prince and over all the other children just like her, restavek children whose day begins with jete pipi: emptying c
hamber pots, dumping their masters' urine.

The Haitian government believes that at least one in every 20 Haitian children is, like Judith, an indentured servant, a restavek.

None of those kids, however, likes to be known by that label. The literal translation is mild: "live-withs." But the social translation is brutal. To be a restavek is to be an untouchable, the ultimate have-not in a society of have-nots.

"Restavek is one of the worst slurs you could be called," says Jacqueline Regis, 37, now a lawyer in Minnesota, and once, briefly, a restavek in Les Cayes. "It puts you down socially so bad that it makes you feel completely worthless."

In the classic restavek scenario, needy rural Haitian parents give away children -- usually girls -- to urban families, with the hope that they be not only fed but sent to school, offered a chance in life.

In the classic scenario, that hope is all too frequently dashed. Instead of being delivered into a better future, the kids are being condemned to a life on the margins of their society.

The restavek phenomenon is as deeply and complexly ingrained in Haitian culture as it is ubiquitous -- a vestige, some say, of colonialism; a symptom, some say, of a society so poor, so ill that the servitude of its children is little more than a necessary fact of life.

"The issue isn't black and white," says Pierre Raynand, head of the tiny Haitian Children's Rights Defense League. "Some young domestics do not fare so badly; others are treated like beasts of burden. Some are even sent to school; others are brutally beaten and sexually abused."

But after generations of acceptance, some Haitians are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the restavek tradition -- especially as the concept of human rights begins to take hold in the post-Duvalier years. They've grown uncomfortable enough to at least search for new euphemisms, avoiding the traditional slur, calling kids like Judith "domestics" or "timoun qui rete ak moun," little people who live with big people.

Which, to some Haitians, is a cloaked way of saying "slave."

"It's slavery, pure and simple," says Jean Robert Chery, an outspoken child psychologist in Port-au-Prince. "That's why it's one subject you can't really touch in Haiti. It's the raw nerve of our society."

Turn a corner in Port-au-Prince and a pretty little girl in a torn pink dress is squatting on an overturned can, scrubbing clothes as other children toss a ball as if she weren't there. She says her name is Mona, and that she's 12, although she looks little more than 7. Her last name? Mona shrugs.

Round a bend and there's another little girl scurrying up a hill with a pail of trash. She's Giselle, dirty and raggedy in a ripped T-shirt and flowered shorts. No, she doesn't live with her mama, she lives with big people, she says, her eyes darting about. Restaveks aren't used to being addressed, especially in gentle tones, especially by foreigners. Giselle begins to sweat, and runs away.

To search out restavek children in Haiti is to search for shadows in a shadowy society. The phenomenon is elusive, because it is both something very open and something very closed. The restaveks are everywhere but people rarely pay them any attention.

"During one of my first trips to Haiti, in the 1950s, I was shocked to see a little restavek girl sleeping under a sitting room table, like a dog," says Bernard Diederich, a veteran Caribbean correspondent and author of Papa Doc, a classic book on Francois Duvalier. "But as I began to understand the complexities of Haitian society, this became something that I, like the Haitians, didn't really notice."

There are no social agencies that look after restaveks, no advocacy groups that take up their plight exclusively. People who live in Port-au-Prince say the restavek custom is really a provincial phenomenon; people in the provinces say it's a problem of the capital. The Haitian government's social welfare agency says 120,000 to 200,000 restaveks are in the country -- but it's not really sure.

In the middle and upper classes, people are reluctant to talk: "It is almost a taboo subject because they have all committed the act," Diederich says.

And even the few people who work with children are hesitant, afraid that outsiders might judge their society too severely: "I don't want anyone to use this information to come to the conclusion that Haitians are savages," says children's rights defender Pierre Raynand.

In search of restavek children, Haitian photographer Daniel Morel led me through the streets of the capital to the busy, rutted Route des Dalles. At a well, a clump of little children waited for water with black oil cans and white buckets. How to tell which were poor kids helping with the family chores, which restaveks?

"It's easy to pick out the restaveks," Morel said. "It's not just that they're smaller and dirtier. It's that they always have such a frightened look, like little animals."


I stopped a sweet little girl named Natasha, who said she was 3 but looked 8. (Many restaveks don't know their age.)

"Who do you live with?" I asked.

"With my auntie," she whispered.

"And your mother, where is she?" I asked gently.

"Deyo," she whispered, literally, "outside," somewhere in the provinces.

In minutes, Natasha and Daniel and I were surrounded by children. We asked questions. They answered: "Give us money." Soon, such an unruly crowd had gathered that Daniel and I walked away, past hand-painted carts with bottles of sweet-colored liquids, past huge blocks of ice lying on large wooden spools.

"The kids say, 'auntie,' " Daniel said, "but they're talking about their boss."

Before long, a girl tugged at my skirt. "I'm one," she said. "I'm a little person who lives with big people." Then she began to cry softly.

Judith Marcena, baby-blue barrettes in her hair, had followed behind us down 15 city blocks. She wanted to tell her story. She also hoped she might get something in return, like $1 for plastic sandals to replace the torn ones that barely stayed on her feet.

Sitting on a stoop, with a light rain falling, Judith told us she used to live with her mother in Petit Goave, a southern town on the Gulf of Gonave. When she was 10, her father announced he was sending her to school in the city. He packed a large colored scarf with her few belongings and took her on a series of tap-taps, or buses, to Port-au-Prince. They arrived late one night at a concrete house that had not only electricity, but a small television set. It was the home of one of her father's former girlfriends.

Judith said her father left early the next morning. "He doesn't want you. He gave you to me, and you'll do as I say," her "stepmother" told Judith. When Judith asked when she was starting school, her stepmother laughed. "She told me I was too stupid to learn to read, and I should give thanks that I didn't have to live in the streets," Judith said.

The stepmother made Judith work day and night. She had to dump the chamber pot and the trash, take the other kids to and from school, fetch the water from the well, prepare the kids' meals, wash the dishes and clean the house. She would wake up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m.

Her stepmother beat her for the slightest transgression, Judith said. When a sympathetic neighbor gave her 50 centimes, or 12 cents, to buy some food, the stepmother accused her of stealing and threw a rock at her head. The little kids in the house would hold their noses and call Judith a smelly restavek; Judith was allowed to bathe only on Saturdays, although she washed the other kids daily.

After a year, desperately unhappy, Judith worked up the courage to ask the sympathetic neighbor to find her mother's stepsister, the only other person she knew in Port-au-Prince. The stepaunt, who is dirt poor, came and took Judith away, with the understanding that Judith would now be her restavek. At her stepaunt's, Judith is still the one who sleeps on the floor and does the bulk of the housework.

But she eats the same meager food as the others in the house, and the stepaunt appears to be a gentle, helpless woman -- although not too helpless to beat Judith when she is "lazy."

Judith wishes only that she could go back home to her mother, she said that first day. She stood up to start the long walk uphill to Under the Fort.

"That would make me happy," she said, "to go home to my mom. Her name is Islene. Could you take me there, to Petit Goave?"

In the early 1950s, when child psychiatrist Jeanne Phillipe was a baccalaureate candidate, she and her classmates would study in a broad public square, watching the restavek children go back and forth with buckets of water on their heads.

"We were young and fresh-thinking, and it just really struck us that we were sitting there studying, preparing for a future, and these children had nothing ahead of them," Phillipe says.

Fifteen years later, in 1968, Phillipe and a sociologist named Daniela Devesin published one of the first studies ever done on restaveks. One out of every six families in Petionville, an affluent suburb of the capital, then had "a young domestic," the researchers found. The domestics did the vilest chores of the home and were treated like garbage, Phillipe and Devesin confirmed.

No one paid much attention to their findings.

In 1975, the late humorist and raconteur Maurice Sixto recorded the story of Ti (Little) Saint Anize, which got quite a different reaction. Over the years, it has become a classic, constantly requested on Haitian radio stations.

Sixto told of a fictional restavek girl who lives in the house of a professor greatly concerned with human rights -- but oblivious to the injustice beneath his nose.

Called "liar, thief" by the professor's shrewish wife, Little Saint Anize is charged with fussing after "Mademoiselle," the professor's daughter, Chantale.

"Saint Anize," says the shrew, "come take Mademoiselle's book bag. Do I have to tell you every day? You'll make her late for school. Oh, my. This book bag is filthy. Why don't you clean it with your tongue, if you can't find a rag?"

It wasn't the first time a Haitian artist had mentioned the abusive treatment of restaveks. But Sixto's satire hit home, particularly among the many educated Haitians who had lived, like Sixto, in exile abroad.

"Those of us who have been away have realized we can do away with the custom and live normally," says the Rev. Fritz Fontus, pastor of the 8,000-member First Baptist Church of Port-au-Prince. "When my wife and I came back from the States, we made a decision not to have a child domestic. We did not want to appear to endorse something we disapproved of -- even if we knew that we would do it differently." Among the affluent, a taint began to attach itself to the long-honored restavek tradition. It was a quiet revolution, and it would lead to a change.

Now, the more affluent hire maids. For the most part, it is the poor and lower-middle class -- the merchants, the soldiers, even the domestics -- who keep restaveks in their homes.

Restaveks are servants even the most meager budget can accommodate.

It is 6:30 a.m. Judith is holding hands with her neighbor and best friend, Marjorie Martiel, as they descend a steep hill toward a nearby well. Marjorie lives with her mother, but she feels so sorry for Judith she often accompanies her on chores.

Judith is lucky to have a friend. Most restaveks don't. But in the neighborhood Under the Fort, the social hierarchy is necessarily less rigid. The concrete homes lean up against each other like rooms in a house; the windows are cardboard, the doors detached pieces of tin. Few children are lucky enough to go down the hill to school. Marjorie doesn't; the difference she sees between her lot and Judith's is that she lives with her mother, sleeps in a bed and has only one chore: to braid her mother's hair. Otherwise, they're both the same age -- 12 -- and love to jump rope.

This morning, Judith swings a large white plastic bucket, which she will fill with water and carry on her head back up the rocky hill, past the goats and a tree decorated with colorful panties drying in the breeze. This is her first bucket of the day. She has six to go. After the seventh bucket, she will bathe her stepcousin, 6-year-old Ricardo, and walk him to school, washing his feet on arrival.

By the mid-1980s, even the government of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier couldn't disregard a tradition that, to the developed world, was so clearly a thing of the past, of Oliver Twist and Cinderella.

In 1984, an unlikely two-day event took place at Hotel Castel Haiti in Port-au-Prince: "The Colloquium on Childhood in Domesticity," the first conference ever on the subject of restaveks -- co-sponsored by UNICEF and "Baby Doc," who also, at the time, was sponsoring the murderous Tonton Macoutes paramilitary brigade.

On opening day, the government host welcomed the crowd with a sample of the rhetoric that would follow: "These beings in question, have they not waited too long -- alas! -- for us to fly to their aid?"

Although the elite was rarely pressed to examine its conscience, and human rights were hardly a "Baby Doc" regime priority, some fairly incisive, if pompously phrased, social criticism was proffered.

Eddy Clesca, identified at the conference as a "psychopedagogue": "The question is this: How could we, a people who led such a tenacious battle to free ourselves from slavery in the 18th Century, tolerate, in this day and age, an injustice as glaring as the "domestication" of children?"

Conference participants said:

* Two-thirds of all restaveks live in Port-au-Prince; their ages range from 4 to 17; and 75 percent are girls -- who are of less economic value to their families. Most restaveks are malnourished; as a result, they are generally smaller than other children their age. (A study of 15-year-old restaveks showed they were 1.5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than a control group of other 15-year-olds.)

* Restaveks get up before anyone else in the family and go to bed last, working 12-hour days, at the minimum. They usually sleep on the floor or outside and eat leftovers after the family dines.

* Seventy-five to 90 percent of restaveks are illiterate, compared to 62.5 percent of the total population.

* Most restaveks suffer from depression, fear and constant anxiety.

"They can barely look you in the eye. It's like they live in a little bubble, in a kind of internal prison," Port-au-Prince child psychologist Jean Robert Chery said in a recent interview.

* Three-quarters of a sample restavek population is beaten routinely. Nearly all are verbally abused. And restavek girls are often used for the sexual initiation of the boys in the house.

"The availability of the child domestic of the feminine sex makes her a natural outlet for the libido and sexual fantasies of the Haitian male," Eddy Clesca said at the conference. "The latter experiences a certain pleasure in abusing the domestic because of her strong odor, her muffled screams, her resistance, and finally, her submission. It's a rape without risk."

Clesca continued: "The Haitian poet living in Montreal, Jean Richard Laforest, in a nice text on domestic rape, admits that, as an adult, he cannot bring a sexual act to completion without thinking of the little maid who served as his sexual initiator."

Following the conference, the Haitian social welfare agency issued the "Law For Little People Who Live With Big People." The law outlawed housework for children under 12, required a salary to be paid those over 15 and ordered employers to send restaveks to school and to doctors. It also said every restavek should be registered, and a yearly permit issued, to be renewed on the basis of a "physical, moral and intellectual examination."

It was, for the most part, a nice law, but like many other nice Haitian laws, it was never enforced. No restavek was registered, no home checked for compliance, no fine of 1,000 to 3,000 gourdes ($200 to $600) levied for "moral tortures or corporal chastisement," as specified.

But this is not unusual in Haiti. There are no institutions to enforce the laws; the justice system is rotten and ineffectual. When psychologist Chery comes across a child who has been raped, there is nothing he can do but "dialogue with the rapist," he says. In Haiti, even murder goes unpunished.

Haiti was once a land of lush forest, once "the pearl of the Antilles," once the proud and only black republic in the world.

Now it is virtually stripped bare, severely deforested and eroded, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And it has suffered a turbulent political history, continuing beyond the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship that ended in 1986.

The restavek phenomenon can be seen only as a function of this history, of the extreme rural poverty and political repression.

It all started with the French, who were outnumbered by their black slaves 10 to 1. The French enforced their rule with such brutality that the slave revolt against them was reciprocally vicious and protracted. By the time the slaves founded the Republic of Haiti in 1804, the plantations were in ruins. Haiti's new rulers tried to revive them, taking a brief turn as slave masters themselves, then distributing land on a massive scale.

The country was divided into minuscule land parcels, the population into small landholders. Economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a tiny urban elite. Everyone else eked out a living as a subsistence farmer.

This year, the per capita yearly income for Haitians is $400.

For the sake of simple survival, rural parents have long given away their children. In some ways, this is just an extension of Haiti's traditional extended family structure, in which everyone looks after ev
eryone else, and the more affluent help the disadvantaged. Blood ties are often irrelevant.

"I remember after the '64 hurricane, when a woman came down to our neighborhood with a boy in her arms and went from house to house, begging for a family that would take him," says Minnesota lawyer Jacqueline Regis, who grew up outside Aux Cayes. "My mother couldn't say no, and we were very poor ourselves."

Antoine became almost like a member of the family, Regis says. "He helped around the house and helped with the farm work. We all did chores. You work hard in a rural setting. He was not really treated differently -- except, well, yes, the three of us kids went to school in town, and he went to a half-day school in the neighborhood."

Antoine's mother was desperate, but rural parents often wanted more than food for a hungry child. They wanted their children to escape their own fate, to take a step closer to the modern world. Haitians who live in the countryside are commonly referred to as moun deyo, outsiders in every sense of the word. Derogatorily, they are neg gwo zotey -- literally, Haitians with fat toes, toes swollen from never wearing shoes.

Andre Val, 20, says he was eager to pack up and leave Jacmel for Port-au-Prince when his parents sent him away to be a restavek. "All my cousins from the capital were better dressed. For starters, they all had shoes. Going to Port-au-Prince, for me, was like going to America."

But the practice of restavek has traditionally betrayed its promise.

Jacqueline Regis: "Haitian people have a basic disrespect for themselves that's part of the oppression over the years. So Haitian people always feel they have to exert themselves over others to affirm who they are. Restavek is the manifestation of that concept."

Journalist Michelle Montas, Radio Haiti Inter: "Restavek kids are mistreated because kids are mistreated, because most parents have a repressive mind-set shaped by the political environment they were raised in. It's the Macoute mentality."

Within a year of moving to the big city, Andre Val, then 12, was miserable. After his mistress beat him with a pipe and spit in his face, he ran away to the streets. He would flatten himself against alley walls at nights, hiding from the police sent to retrieve him.

"When I think about it now," says Val, who now counsels street kids at Jean Robert Chery's Popular Education Center on Burial Street in Port-au-Prince, "I want to kill that family."

Judith is leading us up the slippery rock toward the hedge of tin and concrete shacks, some half-built, that is Under the Fort. It's puzzling that she's willing to let us meet her mistress. Most restaveks we met are terrified that they'll be punished for talking to us, for telling us they're mistreated.

Her stepaunt peeks out from behind the blue gauze that hangs over the doorway of their concrete hut. She does not look evil. She looks wizened, like a weary old woman. She is 42.

The woman brings out a plastic chair for her guests and grinds it into the rocky dirt.

Her name is Frederick François. She used to work as a maid. Now she can't find a job. With money from her oldest son, a mechanic, she barely feeds her seven kids.

François says she needs Judith. She needs help. Judith is just like a daughter to her, she says. She sleeps on the floor only because there is no money for a bed. She must work in exchange for room and board. She is never beaten. Would François be willing to send Judith to school? "If I get the money, it's my girls who go first."

Later a neighbor, Marjorie's mother, tells me: "When Judith is hungry, she doesn't want to work, and her auntie beats her."

François is uncomfortable; she doesn't really want to talk. When we thank her and turn to go, Francois points to her stomach and holds out her hand, cupping her palm.

The reason François agreed to speak to us about something many mistresses are ashamed of is that she, like her restavek, hopes to g
et something in return.

As the standard of life in the cities has declined, many restaveks are just leaving rural poverty for urban poverty. Often, they're not any better off materially -- and they're worse off emotionally, growing up without love, growing up as a member of the subspecies that is made up of restaveks.

Rosita Janeu, for example, a 12-year-old who now works as a restavek in Port-au-Prince, used to go to school when she lived with her mother outside Jeremie, in the south. Now she doesn't. In the countryside, she attended church every Sunday. Now, in the city, she can't.

"Here they look at you bad if you don't have shoes, and I'm ashamed," she says.

Do you want to go back home to your family? Rosita is asked.

She says: "If they wanted me, they would come to get me."

As the Duvalier family dictatorship started to crumble, Haiti began to open up, slowly, painfully and chaotically.

And just as journalists talked more freely on the radio, political parties sprouted like weeds, and Haitians learned to assert themselves with less fear, so, too, did children grow bolder.

More and more restaveks, particularly boys, understood that they didn't have to take the abuse. They could run away.

Every day, every single day, at least one restavek runaway shows up at Radio Haiti Inter, says journalist Michelle Montas.

"They turn up not just here but at the other radio stations and the television station," Montas says. "There's nowhere else to go. Our society has no institutions."

When they arrive, the kids generally say they're lost. After a few days, when no one has shown up to claim them, they admit they're restaveks. In extreme cases, a doctor is needed.

Recently, Montas says, one little girl ran away after failing to make her mistress' bed neatly enough. The mistress had responded by plunging the girl's hands into boiling corn mush, leaving her with second-degree burns.

Sometimes, Montas or another radio personality will try to talk some sense into the master or mistress, "explaining that the child does not have to bleed to learn a lesson." If children know how to find their real parents, the radio station helps them get in touch.

But often the parents can't take them back. One little restavek girl was found by a social worker for CHADEL, a human rights organization, with burns from an iron on her lips and hands. She had been late returning to her mistress' house with the water. CHADEL tracked down the girl's parents. The parents were sad, but they had 11 kids at home. They didn't want her back.

For most restaveks, running away is hardly a solution. There really isn't anywhere to run to.

Some girls end up at The Welcome Center, as the country's one state-run orphanage is known. The Welcome Center's budget allows for $10 to be spent on each kid monthly.

Seventy-five of the 100 girls at The Welcome Center are former restaveks, director Paula Thybullle says.

"You can't imagine what problems I have with these girls. They wake up in the morning crying, but they won't explain what's wrong. They think they have to accept whatever happens to them. They're willing to suffer. They think that's their lot."

Boy restaveks usually end up on the streets, swelling the small ranks of a street-kid population that barely existed five years ago. Of the 5,000 to 6,000 street kids in Port-au-Prince, sleeping under store awnings, getting high on gasoline fumes and washing windshields at intersections, many are runaway restavek boys.

The runaway restaveks are prime targets for exploitation. Journalists and human rights advocates have recently begun investigating a heavily guarded bordello staffed by little kids on the outskirts of town.

Its name is Au Vietnam, In Vietnam.

Traditions die hard. Some say the practice of restavek is not limited to the island, that some Haitians take it with them when they emigrate.

But Claude Charles, a Haitian anthropologist living in Miami, says that's not true.

"Is there domesticity as it exists in Haiti? No, there is not such a thing. In Haiti, it is some form of indigenous slavery. Here, they have no reason to do that. Here in America you have to send a child to school. Here there are protective services.

"You will find, suppose, a young couple where the wife and husband need to work and maybe they send for a niece, a little cousin in Haiti, and give an opportunity for her to come here. Sure, in exchange for education and food, the little cousin will give some form of assistance. But it's not the same pattern. There is an opportunity for abuse, but it is not documented, that I know of."

But there is at least one documented case.

When Lyonel Dor was 12, his father died and his father's half-sister offered to care for the boy. Anita Brutus, who lived in Brooklyn, where she owned a couple of boarding houses, promised to send the boy to school in exchange for his help around the house. It was the traditional restavek contract and Dor's mother readily agreed.

In 1972, Brutus smuggled Dor into the United States. She did send him to school, but she timed his daily departure and arrival. Dor was never allowed out of the house for any other reason. He did all the cooking, cleaning and laundry. He also worked as a handyman at Brutus' boarding houses. Brutus' "character was like a slave boss," her ex-husband, Pierre Polynice, would later say in a deposition.

Brutus beat Dor regularly, for little or no reason -- with a stick, the flat edge of a machete or whatever happened to be handy. Once she beat him severely because he had not timed a meal so that the meat and rice were ready at the same time. Occasionally, Brutus would strip Dor naked and lash him with a cowhide whip, even on his genitals. Four years after Dor arrived, a second restavek arrived, the son of a former Brutus family servant. Brutus stripped and beat the boys together. The second boy, who was more streetwise, wasn't willing to put up with it. He pushed Dor to kill Brutus. As Brutus rested on her bed after breakfast one morning, Dor struck her several times with a pipe, and the other boy stabbed her to death. The second boy, who was younger, was remanded to Family Court. Dor was indicted for murder, and prosecuted as an adult.

Neighbors and Pierre Polynice testified that Dor was verbally, physically and sexually abused by his stepaunt. The prosecutor allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter, and Dor was sent to a New York state prison. After 6 1/2 years as a model prisoner, Dor was released from prison into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He spent another six years in an INS detention center on Varick Street in Manhattan, during which time he married an American nurse from Massachusetts; he also earned a dubious record as the INS' longest-held detainee.

Finally, early this fall, immigration officials deported Dor to Haiti on the condition that he could return to the States late this year on his wife's petition.

In Haiti, Dor met the mother who had sent him away.

"She said she thought going to Brooklyn would be an opportunity for me," he said in English.

Dor had never heard the word restavek, he said. When told that the abuse he suffered was a tradition in his native land, Dor shook his head.

"I think it's a shame. I just wish the people would be more educated and let children be children. I wish there were ways the children could escape and go seek help. Is there something I could do?"

Jacqueline Regis had long ago stopped asking herself that question. A successful lawyer in the Minnesota attorney general's office, she felt no one had an interest in the restavek issue and no one ever would.

Regis grew up in a straw house on a tiny farm where her mother cultivated rice and sugar cane. She and her mother were the outcasts of their more established family in "the main house" in downtown Les Cayes. There were always restavek children at the main house, and, at a particularly dire time, Regis was one of them. Her aunt, she says, was verbally abusive, denigrating the children, calling them lazy no matter how hard they worked, making it clear that they had no rights, and had better shut up and do as they were told.

"But when I saw the real horror stories is when I moved to Port-au-Prince," Regis says. Four restaveks, three girls and one boy, lived at the boarding house where she stayed. Regis was particularly taken with 5-year-old Christiane, a strikingly beautiful girl who had to scrub her mistress' swollen feet. Christiane, who slept on the floor in the dining room and cooked her own dinner of hot, dry cornmeal, was beaten with a broomstick by her mistress and slapped by the mistress' children.

Nearly 20 years later, when Regis heard that a group of Minnesota lawyers was looking into the issue of restaveks in Haiti, she couldn't believe it. In the course of preparing a report on children's rights in Haiti, the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee had stumbled across the phenomenon.

With Regis' participation, the lawyers, who had gone to Haiti to investigate, issued a report in August, which was then broadcast on the radio in Port-au-Prince and circulated among Haitian government and international officials.

The Minnesota lawyers called for the abolition of restavek. The government should undertake an education campaign, denouncing the practice of restavek, the lawyers said. It should remove kids from employing families and return them to their own homes, or at least move them to better environments. There should be more state-run orphanages and programs to address rural poverty and underdevelopment.

Regis felt her Midwestern American lawyer friends had gone a bit too far; they were naive to think an entrenched custom could be abolished, just like that.

"I thought it showed a total misunderstanding of Haitian culture," Regis says. "I don't think it should be abolished. It's a great thing at its best, and people should be educated to practice it at its best."

Child psychologist Chery shudders at such talk, which is not uncommon. He believes abolition is imperative. But, he says, "the problem here is that domesticity is like prostitution. We don't expect lawmakers who avail themselves of bordellos to crack down on whores. And we don't expect lawmakers who have domestics in their homes to change their life style overnight.

"This is too much a part of our social fabric. It will have to be pulled apart one thread at a time."

After the Minnesota report came out, Haitian Social Affairs Minister Brunel Delonnay told the National Catholic Reporter he wanted at the very least to eliminate the Law For Little People Who Live With Big People; under that law, "I should sign a paper for each child," in effect legalizing the practice. "I can't accept legalizing restaveks," he said.

His concrete plan: another conference.

When they grow up, some restaveks continue working, for a salary, for the same family. Others join the swelling population of the urban unemployed. Some girls end up on the Champs de Mars, selling their bodies; some boys in the National Penitentiary.

"Zombies, according to voodoo legend, have no more will. They can't communicate. They can only obey," says Fritz Fontus, the Port-au-Prince Baptist minister. "Our young domestics, once grown, are just like zombies, mute, passive, prepared for nothing but to join the great mass of our marginalized society."

One young restavek boy, Durand Marseiles, who looks about 7, but doesn't know his age, is still young enough to believe change is possible. When he grows up, he wants to be: "someone who sleeps on a bed."

Judith sweeps the dirt out of her stepaunt's house and sits at the edge of a bed covered with a leopard-print sheet.

She would like to be a dressmaker when she grows up, she says. Or a jump-rope champion. She would really love to twirl and dance over a jump rope in the middle of a big circle of kids, with everyone clapping and cheering and no one calling her any bad names.

Also, it would be nice if she could learn to read. Her mother promised she would go to school someday. Couldn't we please take her to Petit Goave to see her mother?

Judith's stepaunt interrupts, wearily. She is tired of Judith's delusion, her fantasy of escape.

"You cannot see your mother. You cannot."

Judith looks down at her feet.

"Her mother," says the stepaunt, "is dead."

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