08/06/2013 12:43 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

In Haiti, Focus on Families

Six days a week this summer, I've slung a water jug over one shoulder and a duffel bag of sports equipment over the other, and trudged out to play with children who live in orphanages in our small mountainous town in Haiti. The kids' poverty and need for adult contact becomes immediately clear. Kids latch onto hands of adults from the community. Souls flap away from over-worn sneakers. Three children who play soccer tilt their head and squint due to poor vision. The moment when I unzip our bag of equipment, kids claw for a soccer ball or jump rope, and when the plastic top to our water jug is removed, children clamor for cup-fulls and refills. There is seemingly no end to their thirst.

I assumed that these kids' challenges were much the result of the absence of both their mother and father. Then one day, I learned a startling truth: most of the kids we serve have parents living nearby.

Poor families in Haiti often give away one or more of their children. Parents choose one of two options; give their children away as restaveks, child slaves, or put their children in an orphanage. About one in every 10 children is a restavek, Families provide restaveks food, school and shelter in exchange for domestic labor. There are more orphans than restaveks, and orphanages have proliferated in recent years. They have provided shelter for parent-less children, but also give families all-too-enticing options for guaranteed food and schooling. Structural violence and the forced destruction of enslaved African families help explain these practices. Yet explanations cannot obscure facts; the family structure in Haiti is broken.

Last week, a mom and her infant son came into our office at the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. She had decided to send him to an orphanage, mentioning that she already had two older children who had hardly enough to eat, and both were doing poorly in school. Our staff jumped into action. They explained the importance of the mother-infant bond and the effects of abandonment on emotional health. They told her they knew she could be a great mother to him, and she had a beautiful boy. Eventually, the mother agreed to think on her decision. This week she returned, decision made. She's signing her child over to the orphanage on Monday.

Despite many misguided foreign aid efforts in Haiti, I believe that there are ways to support Haitians in rebuilding families. First world money must go to organizations which address the root cause of the problem. Rather than funding more orphanages, we need to target organizations which either a) help young adults become more effective parents, or b) provide families with the tools to support themselves financially.

The purpose of programming (such as summer sports) at WWO is not only to support at-risk children in town, but also to develop the organizational and emotional capacity of young adults from the community. It has been inspiring to see these 40 youth run fitness stations, coach soccer teams, and build strong connections with children. These young adults will soon have offspring of their own, and their experiences with kids will inform their decisions as parents. Other organizations do similar capacity-building work. IDEJEN works to re-engage out-of-school youth and young adults in work, civic, and family life. Fonkoze provides a step-by-step approach to poverty alleviation, including social support, incremental microloans, and efforts to empower women.

Warren Buffet's son recently exposed the charitable-industrial complex and called for philanthropists to embrace "humanism". In Haiti, a focus on families -- what could be more humane? -- can make the largest difference.