Michele wishes now that she had grown up in her squalid Haitian birth city of Port-de-Paix. When she was a young girl, her impoverished parents sent her to live with her more affluent aunt and uncle in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, with the promise of a better future. She got instead an old mattress in a closet, 18 hours a day of cooking, cleaning and waiting on her aunt's large family, and years of beatings and sexual abuse by her cousins. Her slavery continued when, a few years later, she was forced to emigrate with her Port-au-Prince family to Miami and then move with them to New York City. They kept her illiterate, denying her schooling even in the U.S. Only two years ago did she break free, running away to Miami. Now Michele (not her real name) is "finally starting life" at age 26. "But please don't use my name," she says in a hushed but heavy voice. "I don't want people here to know this about me. And I don't want my aunt to get mad."
Child slavery is an entrenched tradition in Michele's homeland: the Haitian government estimates that 300,000 youngsters in Haiti are restaveks, or child slaves. Like malaria and political violence, the scourge was thought to have been left behind in Haiti. But as more young people like Michele emerge from the refugee shadows, they have exposed the problem of slaves being kept in the U.S., undetected by local authorities amid the two-decade-old wave of Haitian migration. Says Danielle Romer, director of the private social services agency Haitian Support Inc. in Miami's Little Haiti: "It's much more widespread here than any of us wants to admit."
Restavek in Creole means "to stay with." It's a kind word for a cruel practice that has dogged Haiti since it won independence from France in 1804. Why does a black republic--whose colonial population was composed almost entirely of plantation slaves--still tolerate child bondage? "There was no value placed on children during the slavery era," says the Rev. Miguel Jean Baptiste, a Roman Catholic priest who runs the Maurice Sixto shelter in Port-au-Prince for restaveks who have run away or whose owners allow them a little schooling each day. "Unfortunately, we've carried that mentality with us today." Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear a Haitian say, "Timoun se ti bet": kids are animals.
By the late 1990s, Haitian-American community activists like Romer had begun to detect the presence of restaveks in Miami. When the activists began to broach the issue on Haitian radio shows and at church gatherings, they first faced denial and even veiled threats of ostracism from some of the community's old guard. But the phenomenon could no longer be covered up after Oct. 2, 1999, when Florida officials working on a tip from neighbors removed a 12-year-old Haitian girl--filthy, unkempt and in acute abdominal pain from repeated rape--from the affluent suburban home of middle-class Haitian-American merchants Willy and Marie Pompee in Pembroke Pines. The girl, a restavek, said she had been forced to have sex with the Pompees' 20-year-old son Willy Jr. since she was nine. The father and son, who police say are on the lam in Haiti, have been charged with slaveholding and sexual battery, respectively. Marie, who would not take repeated phone requests for comment, remains under investigation.