PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A troubled Haitian orphanage run by a small and apparently well-funded U.S. church has made cosmetic changes in the two months since an Associated Press report exposed squalor and neglect, but has not done enough to address staffing problems and other issues that could put children at risk, according to two people helping the organization improve.
Workers at the Church of Bible Understanding-run orphanage have painted walls and rearranged cribs and bunk beds to ease overcrowding in the months since the Haitian government determined their two homes did not meet the country's minimum health and safety standards. Members of the religious group, which sells expensive antiques at high-end stores in New York and Los Angeles and uses a portion of the profits to fund the orphanage, say they just received a shipment of bathroom and kitchen tile and a power-washer to attack years of accumulated grime.
But serious problems remain, according to the very people the church has turned to for help.
The church claims it has 60 Haitian nannies to care for the 120 kids. But on at least three occasions in recent weeks there was a single staffer caring for 12 babies over a 24-hour shift at one of the homes, said Rhyan Buettner, a U.S. citizen who was enlisted by the director of a well-establish nearby orphanage, God's Littlest Angels, to help the church.
"I think they are completely clueless about what is needed to take care of that many babies," Buettner said. "I'm shocked no one has died."
Buettner and Dixie Bickel, who runs God's Littlest Angels orphanage, say the staff lack training and face no repercussions when they don't show up.
Bickel also complained that the Church of Bible Understanding has not always followed a new menu she helped create, adding that at times the children have been served meals consisting of no more than plain white rice or spaghetti with no sauce.
"They eat every day and they eat three times a day. Is it a nutritious meal? Sometimes it's not, from what we've seen," Bickel said in an interview at her orphanage.
Before the pair began working with the church, there was no menu at all, they said. "When we started going there, the food was pretty awful," Buettner said.
Paul Szostak, one of two church members in Haiti overseeing the orphanage, said they are making progress and he would soon ask the Haitian Social Welfare Institute to re-inspect their homes, which hold a total of about 120 kids, and seek to restore their accreditation.
"We've got a lot to do and, Lord willing, we'll get it done," said Szostak.
Workers hired by the church started installing kitchen tile in one of the homes Saturday and church members showed off the improvements to AP journalists
The Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its orphanage after a series of inspections beginning in November 2012. UNICEF and the Social Welfare Agency last visited in December and the organization remains without the legal authorization to operate, though the government lacks the resources to shut down homes except in extreme circumstances.
Bickel said she became involved in late October after the church brought several sick infants to her apparently suffering from malnutrition. She said she remains concerned about overall conditions and believes the organization needs to increase its budget and consider moving into new houses.
"The children don't have to have the most beautiful house in Haiti," she said. "But they should have adequate beds, beds with adequate mattresses, staff that come to work and take care of them."
The other church member currently working in Haiti, Justin Fair, denied that the food is inadequate and Szostak portrayed complaints about their cleanliness as unfair, saying the criticism fails to account for the tough conditions in Haiti and the challenge of maintenance with dozens of children and teens.
"When you look at the store in Manhattan and you look here, I can imagine you could say 'Why doesn't it look like a palace?' But it can't look like a palace. It's impossible," he said.
The Social Welfare Institute faulted the group for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and not having enough adequately trained staff. While many other homes also failed standards imposed following the January 2010 earthquake, the shortcomings at the Church of Bible Understanding were a surprise given the group's apparent resources.
The church, which members say is financially separate from the Olde Good Things antique stores it owns, reported income of $3 million and expenses of $2.8 million in their tax filings from 2011, the most recent year available. The organization says "a large part of our operation" is the missionary work in Haiti.
Szostak said the group spends about $25,000 every three weeks in Haiti.
The church has also received annual food grants from USAID since 2003. That grant was valued at nearly $100,000 for 2012-13. It was not renewed last year for reasons unrelated to the orphanage's accreditation, the agency said. In addition, the Church of Bible Understanding has received shipments from the nonprofit Feed My Starving Children for about eight years, according to a spokesman, Drew Gneiser, who said the amounts are confidential.
The church, based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is an evangelical group that emerged in the 1970s and was previously known as the Forever Family. The longtime leader and pastor, Stewart Traill, lives today in a 12,000-square-foot home in Coral Springs, Florida.
Former members said they lived in austere, densely packed group homes and were required to work for the church's businesses or turn over their paychecks from outside jobs. They were lampooned as a carpet-cleaning cult on the TV show "Seinfeld," over one of their previous businesses.
Several ex-members said they were surprised that conditions in Haiti had failed government inspection because the orphanage was always central to their mission.
Tod Burrows, who left the group in the 1980s and now lives in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, said the orphanage was often mentioned during long meetings. "Any time you disagreed with anything someone would tell you, 'You must hate the children in Haiti,'" Burrows said.
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