PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A fire swept through an unaccredited orphanage in Haiti run by a Christian group based in Pennsylvania, killing at least 17 children, the authority for social welfare in the country said on Friday.
The cause of the blaze has not been determined, but one official said that investigators are focusing on a burning candle used for light during a blackout. Power shortages are chronic in Haiti, among the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries, but have become severe in recent weeks.
The Pennsylvania group did not have authorization to operate the orphanage, said Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, general director of the Institute for Social Welfare and Research, which oversees social welfare programs and is responsible for issuing accreditations.
“It’s a very sad situation,” said Ms. Villedrouin, who had cited the candle as the leading investigative theory.
The orphanage, in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, is run by the Church of Bible Understanding, a group that describes itself as a small Christian fellowship with a presence in New York, Florida and California along with Pennsylvania, and an involvement in Haiti since 1977.
The group did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent to its email address and left in a voice mail message at its office in Scranton, Pa. A woman who answered the phone at the group’s office in Haiti declined to comment and did not identify herself.
By Friday afternoon, dozens of people — including former residents — were on the grounds of the three-story orphanage, its upper stories darkened by smoke. The orphanage’s staff had been taken to a local police precinct for questioning, while the surviving children had been relocated to another orphanage.
Gardy Charles, 36, who said he had spent 25 years at the orphanage, was among those who had stopped by. “The whole country has been raised by this orphanage,” he said of the generations of children who had lived there.
According to its website, the group opened its first orphanage in Haiti about four decades ago with six children, and now runs two orphanages with about 150 children and supports others with weekly food deliveries. The residents of the orphanages range from infants to young adults, the group said.
“The most central part of our work in Haiti is rescuing children,” the group said on its website. “Sometimes we learn of a gravely ill child during our food distributions, other times, sadly, they have been abandoned at our doorstep or in a neighboring area, and occasionally they come through referrals by friends or people who work with us.”
The work is financed by donors and business operations, the group’s website said.
The orphanage is one of 754 operating in the country, Ms. Villedrouin said, though only 35 of are accredited by the government. She said the authorities have shut down 160 unaccredited centers in the past five years.
The facility run by the Church of Bible Understanding, Ms. Villedrouin added, “should have been closed.”
According to The Associated Press, the Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its orphanages in Haiti several years ago because of unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, along with inadequate training of its staff.
Though these homes are often referred to as orphanages, many of the children who pass through them are not technically orphans but are sent there by parents too poor to support them.
In 1985, a judge in Manhattan ordered the group to stop housing runaways and other unaccompanied children in its buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn because it had not obtained a license from the state Department of Social Services.
Several months earlier, state officials visiting the buildings had found runaway children living in squalid conditions.
Haiti has long suffered problems with its electricity supply. But a contractual dispute between a private power company and the government has in recent months made matters even worse, leaving swaths of the capital and the rest of the country in frequent darkness.
The energy emergency is part of a broader political and economic crisis that has racked Haiti for nearly two years and has included frequent, sometimes-violent street protests calling for the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse.
The Christian group owns Olde Good Things, an architectural salvage operation with stores in New York City and Los Angeles. Proceeds from the stores support the group’s work in Haiti, according to the business’s website.
Harold Isaac reported from Port-au-Prince, and Kirk Semple from Mexico City.