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US senators seek to close Haiti orphanage amid abuse claims

Saturday, February 03, 2018

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MIAMI, United States (AP) — Ten members of the US Senate have asked the State Department to pressure the Haitian government into closing an orphanage where several children being adopted by American families have been victims of alleged sexual abuse.

The letter said "multiple" children at the Foyer Notre Dame de la Nativite orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince tested positive for the sexually transmitted infection Chlamydia and reported that they had been victims of abuse.

"While Haiti's social services agency has had an ongoing investigation into the orphanage for more than a year, nothing has been done to stop the abuse," said the January 29 letter, addressed to Deputy Secretary of State John J Sullivan.

Orphanage Director Eveline Louis-Jacques said Friday that several children in her care had tested positive for Chlamydia but said it hasn't been confirmed that they contracted the infection while at the home and she vehemently denied any abuse has occurred there.

"The kids are very well treated," Louis-Jacques said in an Associated Press interview. "They are not in an orphanage; they are in my house, with me."

The orphanage was the site of tragedy during the devastating January 2010 earthquake when nearly 70 kids died there during the disaster. There are now 60 children, from ages one to 16.

Louis-Jacques, a former bank executive, runs it with her husband of 42 years and a mostly female staff. Andolphe Guillaume, an official with the social welfare agency, known by its initials in French as IBESR, referred questions about the situation to the executive director, who was not available Friday.

But Guillaume showed AP journalists a report from December showing that at least six of 33 children tested at the orphanage, known in Haiti as a "crèche," had Chlamydia and recommended that authorities continue to investigate the abuse allegations. He said officials were surprised because the home had a good reputation.

"This crèche is one of the best in Haiti. We don't know how this happened," he said.

Louis-Jacques said the children could have contracted the infection at birth from their mothers but the report said the parents of only one of the children also tested positive.

The total number of children who have tested positive is not publicly known. The Senate letter does not provide details on the infections or the children it said also reported abuse.

In January 2017, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency based in Santa Ana, California, sent an email to parents in the process of adopting that a girl recently brought to the US from the Notre Dame had been diagnosed with Chlamydia and that her doctor believed it had been contracted during the time the child was at the home.

The agency said in the email that it was pressing IBESR to conduct an immediate investigation and to have all children examined by an independent doctor.

Nightlight President Daniel Nehrbass said some children contracted the infection while they were in the care of the orphanage but it remains a possibility that the abuse did not occur on the premises. He said he and his staff have visited the home about 16 times in recent years and he will travel to Haiti next week to meet with the director and the US Embassy to discuss the situation.

"There is abuse that is occurring and it has to be addressed," Nehrbass said.

People in the midst of the adoption process, which can take more than two years, have been trying to get US authorities to expedite the paperwork.

Charlotte Gage or Richmond, Virginia, said she managed to get the two boys she and her husband are adopting out of the orphanage but are still in Haiti as they await the final documents they need to return home. She said she was stunned to learn of the alleged abuse.

"I felt my soul just get crushed," Gage said. "It was just horrific to think about children being violated in that way."

The Senate letter said the State Department should not only push Haiti to close the home and relocate the children but also expedite visas and passports for approved adoption cases.

A spokesman for Florida Senator Bill Nelson, one of the 10 Republicans and Democrats who signed the letter, said they had not yet received a formal response. It was signed by senators from Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Virginia.

The State Department said in response to questions that the Embassy in Haiti is aware of the reports of abuse and is "providing all Consular services" without providing details. It added that it seeks to ensure that all international adoptions take place in the best interests of the child.

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