Psychology lecturer aids displaced children in Haiti

Psychology lecturer Tony Hoffman is working with children in Haiti for five weeks at the invitation of the American Refugee Committee.
Children play at one of the "child-friendly spaces" established in Port-au-Prince. (Photograph by Tony Hoffman)
Hoffman gives instructions to ARC staff in Port-au-Prince Friday on sanitation a new type of latrine that will be installed.

A UC Santa Cruz specialist in developmental psychology is working in Haiti with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) to help children displaced by the January 12 earthquake.

David A. (Tony) Hoffman, a lecturer in psychology since 1991, said the ARC asked him to help set up and coordinate safe places for children in a displacement camp with more than

8,000 people in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Delmas. Nearly half are children, he said, and many were lucky to have lost only their homes. A quick assessment showed that more than half the children lost a close family member. About 10 percent lost a parent.

"Child exploitation increases after a crisis," Hoffman said before flying first to the Dominican Republic and then to Port-au-Prince. He left on Valentine's Day and arrived February 16.

In an e-mail four days after arriving, Hoffman said vulnerability of children is increasing. "Children are at more risk of exploitation, malnutrition, disease, abandonment, and mental health problems," he wrote. "This is still a serious public health crisis for children; in fact, the crisis could worsen for children at this stage.

"We're likely to see more child abandonment, life-threatening illness, and exploitation now," said Hoffman, who teaches several courses at UC Santa Cruz, including one, Children in Extreme Circumstances. "We're trying to set up water sanitation and basic public health for the children," he said.

Hoffman, who also sits on the Bonny Doon school board, said he is currently on a small lecturer's contract this quarter due to budget cuts at UCSC. He was supervising field-study students who encouraged him to help in Haiti while continuing to supervise them using Skype and e-mail. His students are following his work at, a blog where he posts updates of work with ARC including photographs of "child-friendly spaces'' ARC has established.

He has also been able to serve as an on-the-ground contact for people with family in Haiti, including a Santa Cruz couple that had been seeking photos about their relatives' living situation. Chelsea George, whose husband Andre Cherer is Haitian, said his family is living in tents near their damaged houses. She contacted Hoffman before he left Santa Cruz. He e-mailed Wednesday to say her husband's family is safe. ". No one is hurt," he wrote, "and their house has cracks in it -- but I think it is repairable." He also e-mailed photographs.

Hoffman plans to work in Port-au-Prince until the end of March on psychosocial assessments of vulnerable families and children, and assisting with the development of community-based protection mechanisms in the displacement areas. He said he will also assist in training local professionals in primary response mental health services.

"Phase 1, the emergency phase is over," he said. "Traffic is in the street, people are opening stores." Survivors are living in large displacement areas in tents and other temporary structures. "This stage of the relief effort is about stabilization - providing food, water, sanitation, and other basic needs."

"At this stage, it is time for physical and spiritual healing, for people to start repairs or to resettle, to help others in more need," he said. "As far as children are concerned, now is the time to place them with caring relatives, stabilize care for them and restart school. I admire how hard Haitians are working to do this."

Hoffman, who has a clinical practice in child psychology in Santa Cruz, has worked in other child protection efforts in war zones and poverty situations with grants and fellowships from UCSC, including the Center for Teaching Excellence. The ARC is a private nonprofit relief organization based in Minneapolis.

He said he has often seen cases of well-intentioned people trying to conduct mass adoptions of "orphans" from crisis zones - particularly in Africa - such as the missionaries from Idaho who were arrested when they attempted to take 33 children across the border to the Dominican Republic. Eight of the 10 arrested were released Wednesday.

That case "is the tip of the iceberg," Hoffman said, saying many well-intentioned people from wealthy countries intervene with the "intention of saving the children by adopting them into families in their wealthier nation.

"Often they come with the best of intentions and great motivation, but not

with an educated, well-informed tactic," he said.

Hoffman said his UCSC classes involve the growing research on intervention for children in crisis situations. "The urgent need is to transform good intentions into good practice respecting the rights and holistic needs of children," he said. "Let's transform good intentions into good action."