The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

15 babies and children died in a fire at a group home in Haiti run by a U.S. church

Employees stand outside another branch of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding, in the Kenscoff area, during a police raid in which all the children were removed and placed on a bus, outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

A fire tore through a children’s group home in Haiti Thursday night, killing at least 15 children at a facility run by a U.S.-based Christian organization, according to UNICEF.

Babies and toddlers were among the dead along with children around the ages of 10 or 11, a child-care worker from the facility told the Associated Press. At least two were immediately killed in the blaze and at least 13 others died at the hospital due to smoke inhalation, said Maria Luisa Fornara, a representative from UNICEF Haiti. About another 60 children made it out of the home, she said, noting the number of children in the facility when the fire sparked is still under investigation. Authorities are working to find homes for the survivors.

The home was operated by the Church of Bible Understanding in Pennsylvania, Fornara told The Washington Post, and it was not accredited by the Institute of Social Welfare and Research in Haiti, known as IBESR. Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, the director of IBESR, also told Reuters and the New York Times the religious group did not have the proper license to operate its facilities in Haiti.

Unaccredited group homes like these are “operating illegally,” Fornara said, calling it a common problem at the center of a widespread issue affecting tens of thousands of Haitian children.

The Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its facilities in Haiti following inspections that started in 2012, the Associated Press reported. The authorization was revoked after the reviews in part revealed overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. In 2013, the Associated Press described a distressing scene at the organization’s two homes in the Caribbean country: worn mattresses, sour scents, dirty rooms.

The cause of the fire is being investigated.

Police in Haiti entered another home run by the religious group on Friday following the fire, according to the Associated Press, seizing several dozen children living there and shepherding them onto buses.

The website for the religious organization, which refers to itself as a “Christian fellowship,” says it has been operating in Haiti since 1977 and runs two houses with about 150 children. It also operates in New York, Florida and California, according to the site. The organization did not respond to an email or call from The Post requesting comment on the fire.

Temi J. Sacks, a spokesman for the organization, told the Associated Press it is “aware of the fire in the children’s home in Haiti. … It would be irresponsible for us to comment until after all the facts are in.”

In a tweet, Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse said he was “deeply moved” by the death of the children in the fire. He called on authorities to “adopt urgent measures” to determine the cause of the blaze.

There are 754 children’s homes in Haiti that shelter more than 25,000 children, according to UNICEF. Of those, just 35 meet the standards to operate, Fornara said, citing an analysis by IBESR. She said while the facilities are often called orphanages, 80 percent of the children have parents who may live nearby. Families living in poverty or who cannot otherwise take care of the children instead place them in these group homes.

“There’s a lot of work to be done for social protection to avoid families being put in a situation where they cannot provide for their children,” she said.

“If I can make a plea in this tragic event, it’s that no child should be in an orphanage — every child should be in a family environment,” she added. “If not its own family, there’s always a possibility it can live with a larger family or in foster care.”

She said UNICEF works to help the IBESR in emergency situations to find temporary shelter for the children, or to help reunite them with families if their parents or relatives can be found. She said UNICEF is also working on creating a database of foster care families in Haiti that can help in similar emergencies.

“We have already 120 families that have been identified,” she said. “It’s absolutely not enough but that’s the way it starts."

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