OUANAMINTHE, Haiti — Child protection specialists throw out one question after another, while offering street descriptions and city names in their quest for clues, as the soft-spoken boy sits quietly at a play table.

Uncooperative and seemingly evasive, the boy, who says his name is Jefferson Joseph, rests his head between his clenched fists. After a few seconds, he finally offers up a first and last name, and then his age. But over the next few minutes, the 6-year-old provides a confusing list of nicknames for his dad, and a city name that none of the workers has heard of.

“Your dad, what is his name?” asks Michelot Difficile. “Tonton? Tonton what?”

Difficile works on the Haiti-Dominican border with the International Organization for Migration, which helps Haiti’s child welfare agency, the Institut du Bien-Etre Social et de Recherches, or IBESR, reunite abandoned and separated children with their families. The United Nations’ agency also monitors trafficking along the border.

On this day, Difficile isn’t sure whether the youngster is intentionally stonewalling him, as traffickers often coach their young victims to do, or whether he truly can’t remember where he’s from. In July, the boy was picked up in the market in the Haitian border city of Ouanaminthe, and transported by IBESR to a safe house at the end of a winding dirt road.

“He doesn’t talk,” said Judith Surlin, the social worker who runs the safe house opened by the Soeurs Saint-Jean religious order. “No one has ever come to ask for him.”

Serving those at-risk

Jefferson’s stay at the shelter was supposed to be temporary — 15 days at the most. But he’s been here now for six months, the longest of any of the 20 children currently under Surlin’s care. Most of the children, she said, were abandoned by their parents in Haiti. Two were separated from their parents after they were deported by the Dominican Republic, as part of its continuing effort to repatriate undocumented Haitians and Dominicans born of Haitian descent who were retroactively stripped of their citizenship after a 2013 Dominican court ruling.

In a country where thousands of children are trafficked every year, the plight of Haiti’s children along this porous border is a perilous one. There are the street children, who have nowhere to go after fleeing abuse or being abandoned by their parents. There are those who are deported to Haiti without their parents. Some are outright victims of trafficking.

All were brought to the shelter, where they wait and hope someone comes to claim them. Sometimes, parents do come, said Surlin. But other times they don’t, leaving the children in limbo. Eventually, they are transferred to a long-term residential facility such as an orphanage until they reach 18.

Supported by UNICEF and IOM, the safe house is in many ways a lifesaver. The children are provided with meals and a place to sleep; trundle beds are in both the girls’ room, which is painted pink, and in the boys’ quarters, painted blue. Outside, there is a garden and a large field for playing.

Yet, its cheery facade, with life-sized murals of brown children and the words, “All children should live with their families,” scribbled in Creole, can’t diminish the magnitude of the daily struggle that child protection workers face as they try to serve those most at-risk.

Building a better system

The child protection specialists acknowledge that the temporary shelter, which can house only 30 kids, doesn’t begin to make a dent in the desperate plight of Haiti’s border children.

“The work that we’re doing here isn’t easy,” Surlin said. “These are children who grew up in the streets. … There are children who come here and are victims of sexual violence.”

Efforts to do more to protect Haiti’s children were stepped up after a group of American missionaries were accused of kidnapping 33 children and trying to take them out of the country in the wake of Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. The arrest, which made international headlines, highlighted a broken child welfare system and the vulnerability of children, thousands of whom are forced into domestic servitude or abandoned on the streets or in unregulated orphanages.

With its child welfare system under a cloud of international scrutiny, Haitian officials vowed to do more to protect children. In 2016, the government launched its first ever foster care system, and in May, Haiti finally came into full compliance with the Hague Adoption Convention regulating international adoptions.

“We recognize their effort to combat trafficking,” said Robin Diallo, interim charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. “But there is still work to do.”

‘numbers speak for themselves’

In its 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. State Department noted that Haiti “had slightly increased efforts to prevent trafficking.” It noted several changes, including securing three convictions during the reporting period.

But with hundreds of thousands of children still being exploited as domestic servants or restaveks, and “a significant number” of children fleeing employers’ homes or abusive families for the streets, the government needs to do more, the report said.

Adding to the concern, say IOM officials, are the ongoing deportations of Haitians from the Dominican Republic. Among the 229,885 individuals who registered with IOM after crossing into Haiti between July and September were thousands of children who were returned without their parents — a violation of international law and the agreement between the two countries, IOM said.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Olivier Tenes, head of IOM’s operations in northeast Haiti. “In September, 156 minors have been repatriated.”

In all, 4,167 presumed unaccompanied and separated children were returned to Haiti from the Dominican Republic between July and September, according to IOM’s tracking data.

On a recent market day, IOM and IBESR child protection workers stood on the bridge looking for children coming across without their parents, and those illegally headed toward Dajabon in the Dominican Republic.

An IBESR worker spotted a couple walking with two boys into the crowd and proceeded to ask the adults for documents to determine whether the boys were traveling legally or being trafficked.

The two boys, ages 6 and 8, grabbed onto their father while standing at a distance from the woman. When the worker questioned one of the boys, he unwittingly conceded that the woman wasn’t his mother and the name he provided did not match his name on the fake birth certificate that had been provided.

“This prevention is pretty important,” Tenes said.