“Restavek” is a Haitian Creole word meaning “one who stays with.” The term applies to an estimated 300,000 poor children in Haiti, mostly girls, who are given or sold by their parents to wealthier families, or taken from orphanages.
The children work in exchange for food, shelter and the promise of school, but often end up victims of physical and sexual abuse, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking.
Some sneak into the United States when their host family emigrates, then hide in a Haitian-American community, which is often loath to discuss the practice with outsiders.
Haitian-American advocates recall about 30 instances that have come to light since 1999, when a 12-year-old came forward with an appalling story about being a Broward County couple’s household servant and a sex slave for their son.
But authorities believe those examples are probably just a small fraction of the actual number, because so few cases are reported.
“Haitians don’t see those kids as slaves,” said Jean-Robert Cadet, a former restavek who published a memoir tracing his journey from Haiti’s poverty to the American middle class.
Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, said some Haitians view the practice as an informal foster care system.
Maude Paulin, a teacher, and her mother, Evelyn Theodore, are scheduled to stand trial in January on federal charges that they illegally brought Celestin into the country in 1999 and kept her in involuntary servitude. Prosecutors say Celestin, then 14, was taken from an orphanage Theodore owned in Haiti, the least developed country in the western hemisphere.
Paulin’s ex-husband is also charged with human trafficking, and her sister faces forced labor charges. All four could spend decades in prison if convicted.
Richard Dansoh, Paulin’s attorney, said this is a case of cultural misunderstanding. He said Celestin had been the favorite of Paulin’s late father at the orphanage, and the family took her in at his wishes.
“They took her to improve her chances of having a good life. This is not a slavery case,” Dansoh said.
Dansoh said Celestin could not be enrolled in school because she lacked the proper documents, but Paulin home-schooled the girl. Celestin protested when the family tried to curtail her involvement with older men who had promised to help her gain permanent residency in the U.S., he said.
Paulin and her family were trying to “shield her from a life of inappropriate relationships,” Dansoh said.
Advocates say it’s difficult to coax suspected restaveks to open up, even when they are identified, because they are told their work supports family members back in Haiti, and they fear relatives will suffer retribution.