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Haitian Children in Bondage

By Jim Luken

He was a child slave in Haiti. Now author and activist Jean-Robert Cadet speaks out against this practice.


Photo by Brad Smith

On an island not far off the Florida coast, young children are kept in conditions of outright slavery. This is happening right now: slave children. Hundreds of thousands of them. Desperate. Unloved. Cruelly mistreated. This island is Haiti.

Child slavery is a fact of everyday life in Haiti, the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Everyone in Haiti knows about this scandalous reality. But like any other skeleton in the closet, the secret is tucked away from the consciousness—and social conscience—of Haitian society as a whole.

We in the developed world sometimes hear alarming reports about terrible child-labor practices in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in Benin, or elsewhere in Asia or Africa. This practice of actual slavery—so close to home—has been kept hidden from us.

A courageous autobiography by a Catholic Haitian educator who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, brings this reality to light. That man, Jean-Robert Cadet, hopes and believes that—once it is exposed to the world’s scrutiny—the whole system of child slavery in Haiti will fall apart forever.

Giveaway Children

The child slaves of Haiti are called restavecs, a French word which means “ones who stay with.” (Restavec is the French spelling preferred by Cadet, though restavek is the common Haitian Creole spelling.) The children “stay with” rich and middle-class families, but not by choice. Their “stay” is no visit. They cannot leave.

Extremely poor parents in rural Haiti often find themselves forced to “give” one or several of their children into the care of the wealthy or the middle class. They do so in the belief (more a hope) that their child will be educated by the family he or she stays with, and that somehow the child will lead a better life away from the grinding poverty that affects 90 percent of Haitian society. According to Cadet, these parents’ hopes and longings for their children are very seldom realized.

Cadet (pronounced Cah-day) should know. He grew up as a restavec. And he has written a pain-filled, yet in some strange way hopeful book about his own horrible experiences as a child slave. The book is titled Restavec: From Haitian Slave to Middle-Class American.

I read Cadet’s book during the 10 weeks my wife and I spent in Haiti early in 1999. I remember sitting on a balcony in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and crying uncontrollably as I read it. The old expression, “Read it and weep,” could not have been clearer to me.

I was aware that, all around me, children like little “Bobby” Cadet are living in the most horrifying conditions. And they are helpless because they are “just kids” and because they are, in every terrible sense of the word, slaves: the legal property of masters who look on them as subhuman.

Cadet describes sleeping, as a child, on a pile of rags under the kitchen table, “like a house cat.” He would wet his makeshift bed every night. Bedwetting is very common with restavec children, according to Cadet, because their lives are filled with so much trauma. For wetting his ragpile, he was constantly ridiculed and sometimes beaten.

Restavec [children] are treated worse than slaves,” Cadet says in his book, “because they don’t cost anything and their supply seems inexhaustible.” Certainly the fact that they are young children makes them vulnerable and easy to manipulate. If they were to run away (as many of them do once they reach early adolescence), where would they go in a country so desperately poor, with so few social safety nets in place? Most of them, having been transported to the capital city, have no idea where their real families live.

“For any minor infraction,” Cadet writes, “they are severely whipped with the cowhide whip that is exclusively made for that purpose....Girls are usually worse off because they are sometimes used as concubines for the teenage sons of their owners. And if they become pregnant, they are thrown into the streets like garbage.”

During a trip to Haiti following the publication of his book, Cadet told me in a telephone interview that he met one of these girls, who had been brought by the police to the Maurice Sixto Center, an orphanage for escaped or abandoned restavecs in Port-au-Prince. “Have you seen those movies where a slave is beaten till his back is covered in bloody stripes?” Cadet asked me. “That’s the way her back was. She let me see it.” According to Father Miguel, director of the Center, this little girl was one of the worst cases of physical punishment he has seen.

Cadet says that wealthier Haitian families keep slave children to do jobs that their paid domestic servants refuse to do. For instance, he would get up at five in the morning to collect and clean all the family’s chamber pots.

Cadet describes how his owner, Florence, the only “mother” he ever knew, would make him sit and scratch her feet for hours. If he nodded or rested, she would kick him violently. He was simply something to be used.

First Communion Surprise

Originally settled by the Spanish and later taken over by the French, the country of Haiti shares a Caribbean island (Hispaniola) with a Spanish-speaking country, the Dominican Republic. In 1802, the African slaves of Haiti overthrew their French masters and set up an independent republic consisting entirely of former slaves.

Today Haiti’s population is primarily black. About 85 percent of the people are Catholic, although most Haitians also practice an animistic (“spirit-based”) religion called Voodoo. Voodoo came to Haiti from Africa on the slave ships.

Cadet was raised Catholic by his owner, Florence. He was taught the Ten Commandments, including the first, so he had great difficulty understanding how Florence could go to church on Sunday and then come home to a little altar in her bedroom and worship the Voodoo loas (spirit gods).

One of the most poignant stories from Cadet’s childhood occurred when he was nine years old and was preparing to receive his First Holy Communion. Or so he believed.

Because Jean-Robert’s birthfather, a Caucasian, was rich, Florence was given enough money to send him to school, the Ecole du Canada. He and his fellow classmates studied their catechisms every day in anticipation of their First Communion. His classmates would talk about the white shirts, red ties and black shoes their parents had bought them for the upcoming occasion.

One of the marks of restavec children is the rags they always wear. These are their only clothes, identifying them as the lowest class in Haiti’s class-based culture. Their ragged clothes would often inspire the taunts of other schoolchildren, who wear bright, clean uniforms to school every day, even if they are poor.

The young Cadet was convinced that Florence, knowing the importance of First Communion, had bought him the proper clothes to wear. For many days, he searched the house, convinced that his maman (which is what he called her) had hidden his white suit as a surprise, a surprise he couldn’t find.

The Saturday before his First Communion, Florence bought live chickens from a street vendor. Cadet was so happy, believing the chickens were for a big dinner celebration following his First Communion.

Then Florence went off shopping. The boy was excited, convinced that Florence was finally going to buy his First Communion outfit. When Florence returned, she carried a package, but said nothing to little Bobby, as she called him. Although he was never permitted to speak unless spoken to, the child finally blurted out expectantly, “Confession is at six o’clock, and Communion is tomorrow at nine o’clock in the morning.”

Florence became very angry. She called him names too awful to print here. “If you think I’m gonna spend my money on your First Communion, you’re insane,” she shouted. Then she told the cook not to prepare the chickens for Sunday. She told her that she would be attending her own nephew’s First Communion the following day. There would be no celebration for Bobby.

Without proper clothes, the young Cadet could not make his First Communion. It would be many years later, when he was in the U.S. Army, that Cadet—wearing his dress green uniform and shiny black boots—finally received the sacrament of Christian unity. Not a single relative or friend was present in the chapel on the base. Jean-Robert Cadet found himself alone for his First Communion.

So His Son Would Know

During several interviews at his home, Cadet told me why he wrote the book about his desperate life as a child slave. He began the work for the sake of his American-born son, who is 10 years old. “My motivation was Adam. I had no parents to show him. And I wanted him to know who I was.” Cadet said that, as he penned the manuscript, he would weep violently over and over. “The whole thing got wet,” he said.

When Adam made his own First Communion, Cadet was plunged back into the memory of the devastating disappointments of his childhood. “That’s what I dreamt my First Communion would have been,” he said, “just like Adam’s.”

When Cadet was 14 years old, his maman moved with her biological son to the United States. Several months later, Cadet found himself once again in Florence’s household, now in upstate New York. Fortunately, the “slave-to-owner” relationship was weakened by U.S. law requiring minor children to be in school. At school, Cadet found a teacher willing to assist him. When he was thrown out by his maman, this teacher helped him find housing and money so he could finish high school, which he did.

In Time magazine this past March, a two-page report indicated that some immigrants in Miami’s Little Haiti keep restavecs. Phillip Brutus, Florida’s first Haitian-American state legislator, told Time, “We are not going to let Haitian traditions like restavek [Time’s spelling] flourish here....”

While Cadet benefited from an American education, he found racism to be another pervasive form of oppression.

From Slavery to Racism

The second half of Cadet’s book deals with his life as a young black man who spoke no English and found himself totally alone in a country where racism is so dominant a reality. He was in a whole new ballgame now—with at least three strikes against him. Sad to say, the “American” part of the book is almost as sad and disturbing as the part that happened in Haiti.

Cadet now lives in a suburban neighborhood with his wife, Cindy, a high school teacher, and their two children, Adam and Katrina. Cadet taught at the same middle-class school where his wife works. But in September 1999, an ongoing series of racial taunts and threats motivated Cadet to resign his teaching job. At the present time, he has received a scholarship for doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati.

Cindy told me that, when they first met, Cadet’s feelings about Haiti were so negative that he would not even tell her he was a Haitian. Instead, he told her he was from another Caribbean island, Martinique. Gradually, he opened up his Haitian background to her.

“When I learned about all the abuse he had been through,” Cindy said, “I told him, ‘You should be a basket case or an alcoholic.’”

Instead, she says, her husband is a workaholic. He worked his way through high school, through the military, through college and through graduate school. “He gets obsessive over things,” she says, “but that’s what keeps him going. When he painted our house, he would work from seven a.m. until midnight.”

Nowadays, a lot of Cadet’s energy is going into the promotion of Restavec, with its searing indictment of Haitian society. He is not doing it for the modest book royalties. Instead, he is a man with a passion. He wants to dismantle the system of child slavery in Haiti. He believes that his book, and all the attention it has been getting, could help bring about a change in the long-standing Haitian practice of keeping children as slaves.

Recently, Cadet’s mission has been receiving a good deal of high-level support. After he spoke about the restavec situation at the U.N. in November 1999, the national media began paying attention to this man’s quiet, passionate call for change. He was interviewed in February 2000 on National Public Radio; then an Associated Press article about him appeared in The New York Times and other major newspapers. In early May 2000, CNN flew him back to Haiti where they spent almost two weeks filming his story from the place where it had happened, the place where it is still happening. Haiti may never be the same.

Seeing God's Hand

“I’m trying to...,” he hesitates, with passion in his voice, “to eliminate this system. I can’t do this without having God on my side.” A friend of his from India suggested that God had given him a mission, which was to suffer the horrible childhood he lived through in Haiti. “It was all so hopeless,” Cadet continues, “but now so many groups and people are responding to what I am trying to do. I know God has a hand in that.”

Cadet believes that, if the restavec system is held up to the scrutiny of the outside world, then the Haitian elite and middle-class people will be shamed into abolishing it. “It will become a national taboo,” he says.

During our time in Haiti, my wife and I came in contact with only one former restavec, Lisa. She was about 20 years old, and working as a paid house servant for our Creole-language teacher, Este.

A wonderful woman, Este was doing her best to help the former restavec shape a new life for herself. But Este lamented to us that Lisa did not seem to have any real sense of herself as a human being. She had no viable self-image. She seemed to have little human dignity.

“She won’t even look at me,” Este complained. “She always keeps her head bowed. When I call her, she brings me something that I don’t need, anything! She keeps trying to anticipate what my needs are before I even express them.” It was obvious that Lisa was unable to understand the difference between a compassionate employer and a “master.” Like a bird who breaks its shell and sees something other than its mother, Lisa’s self-image was imprinted by her owners.

Jean-Robert Cadet understands Lisa’s condition all too well. He says that the day-to-day existence of the restavec child depends on his or her anticipating and attempting to meet the most mundane and sometimes unpleasant needs of the household members where he or she lives.

In one chapter, Cadet’s book describes how it was his job, as a young child, to clean the menstrual rags that his maman would use each month. The rags would frighten him, because he didn’t understand where all this blood had come from. Still he had to clean and bleach the rags.

He lived his young life in abject fear of displeasing Florence, her various lovers or her biological son, who would sometimes beat him mercilessly. He could be beaten by anyone who came into the house. He was, after all, only a restavec.

Cadet has been publicizing his book among the large Haitian communities in New York and Miami. He says that most Haitian-Americans have enthusiastically endorsed the book and sympathize with his efforts to change this long-accepted Haitian institution. In May, the University of Kansas published Cadet’s book in Haitian Creole. Hopefully, this will enable the book to make inroads in Haiti itself, even among school students, whose second language is French, not English. A Spanish translation will soon be published in Costa Rica. French and German editions are also in the works.

In June of last year, Cadet was invited by the United Nations to serve on its working group on contemporary forms of slavery. Last October, he testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of Haiti’s slave children.

Cadet recently established the Restavec Children’s Fund to help take care of the thousands of restavec children who wind up on the streets of Port-au-Prince. He laments that many Haitians still behave like Florence, treating their restavec children in the same inhuman way that he was treated.

“Florence is a product of Haiti,” he told me. “I was born into Haitian society, but I was forced to see it as an observer. I was never a participant. I was just there to serve. I was there to be borrowed [by Florence’s friends]. I was there to be abused.”

The pain of his childhood is embedded in the soul of Jean-Robert Cadet, and it is still visible in his eyes. But for him the greatest pain is that so many children in Haiti remain victims of this inhuman system, with no privileges, no rights and, worst of all, no love to hold them and to heal them. All of Haiti needs help, but restavecs need rescue.

The Restavec Foundation was begun by Jean-Robert Cadet to accomplish three goals. First, Cadet hopes to find homes and schools for freed restavecs and streetchildren. Second, he intends to work toward convincing Haitians that the restavec system must end. Lastly, he intends to assist rural families with food and education for their children, so that they do not need to “give away” their children. Visit for more information or write P.O. Box 43156, Cincinnati, OH 45243-0156.


Jim Luken and his wife, Jeanette, spent 10 weeks in Haiti in the winter of 1999. They live in Sheffield, Vermont, where he is a manager of a low-income senior living community. Luken is currently narrating his long history as an antiwar activist in a full-length memoir.


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