Image: Laura Silsby
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
Laura Silsby, of Boise, Idaho, speaks to The Associated Press at police headquarters in Port-au-Prince on Saturday after 10 Americans were detained for trying to bus 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without proper documents.
NBC News and news services
updated 2/1/2010 7:59:00 AM ET 2010-02-01T12:59:00

Ten American Baptists were being held in the Haitian capital Sunday after trying take 33 children out of Haiti at a time of growing fears over possible child trafficking.

The director of the charity now watching the children told NBC News that one child said she still had parents and was only expecting a brief vacation.

He added that a policeman believed the group was trying to sell the children for $10,000 each, an allegation denied by the church members.

"As far as we know they would have been, I say it clearly, sold for $10,000 each," said Georg Willeit, who runs the SOS Children's Village outside Port-au-Prince. "That's what one of the policemen told us. Every child was very desperate, hungry, thirsty. They all were in a bad condition."

"One of the elder girls told us, 'I'm not an orphan. I still have my parents,'" he added. "She thought she was going on a summer holiday vacation given by friendly people from America and the Dominican Republic."

The church members, most from Idaho, said they were trying to rescue abandoned and traumatized children. But officials said they lacked the proper documents when they were arrested Friday night in a bus along with children from 2 months to 12 years old who had survived the catastrophic earthquake.

The group said its "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" was an effort to help abandoned children by taking them to an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic.

"In this chaos the government is in right now we were just trying to do the right thing," the group's spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, told The Associated Press at the judicial police headquarters in the capital, where the Americans were being held pending a Monday hearing before a judge.

No charges had been filed, though Haiti's national secretary for security, Aramick Louis, said a judge had already done a preliminary investigation into the case.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive told The Associated Press Sunday he was outraged by the group's "illegal trafficking of children" in a country long afflicted by the scourge and by foreign meddling.

But the hard reality on the ground in this desperately poor country — especially after the catastrophic Jan. 12 quake — is that some parents openly attest to their willingness to part with their children if it will mean a better life.

It was a sentiment expressed by all but one of some 20 Haitian parents interviewed at a tent camp Sunday that teemed with children whose toys were hewn from garbage.

"Some parents I know have already given their children to foreigners," said Adonis Helman, 44. "I've been thinking how I will choose which one I may give — probably my youngest."

The Baptist group planned to scoop up 100 kids and take them by bus to a 45-room hotel at Cabarete, a beach resort in the Dominican Republic, that they were converting into an orphanage, Silsby told the AP.

Whatever their intentions, other child welfare organizations in Haiti said the plan was foolish at best.

"The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake," said Deb Barry, a protection expert at Save the Children, which wants a moratorium on new adoptions. "The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labeled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high."

Political firestorm
Whether they realized it or not, these Americans — the first known to be taken into custody since the Jan. 12 quake — put themselves in the middle of a firestorm in Haiti, where government leaders have suspended adoptions amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to child trafficking.

The quake apparently orphaned many children and left others separated from parents, adding to the difficulty of helping children in need while preventing exploitation of them.

While many legitimate adoption agencies and orphanages operate in Haiti, often run by religious groups, the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration reported in 2007 that bogus adoption agencies in Haiti were offering children to rich Haitians and foreigners in return for processing fees reaching $10,000.

The agency said some Haitian parents were giving their children to traffickers in return for promises of financial help.

Silsby said the group, including members from Texas and Kansas, only had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children, whom she said they obtained from Haitian pastor Jean Sanbil of the Sharing Jesus Ministries.

Naive?
Silsby, 40, of Boise, Idaho, was asked if she didn't consider it naive to cross the border without adoption papers at a time when Haitians are so concerned about child trafficking. "By no means are we any part of that. That's exactly what we are trying to combat," she said.

She said she hadn't been following news reports while in Haiti.

Social Affairs Minister Yves Cristallin told the AP that the Americans were suspected of taking part in an illegal adoption scheme.

Many children in Haitian orphanages aren't actually orphans but have been abandoned by family who cannot afford to care for them.

Children's rights groups have urged a halt to adoptions until it can be determined that the children have no relatives who can raise them.

The government now requires the prime minister to personally authorize the departure of any child as a way to prevent child trafficking — though that has not stopped the flow of orphans abroad.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told ABC News' Good Morning America on Sunday that his state has taken in 300 Haitian orphans since the quake, with 60 to 80 orphans arriving there Friday night alone.

UNICEF and other NGOs have been registering children who may have been separated from their parents. Relief workers are locating children at camps housing the homeless around the capital and are placing them in temporary shelters while they try to locate their parents or a more permanent home.

U.S. diplomats met with the detained Americans and gave them bug spray and field rations, according to Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and 18-year-old daughter were being held."They have to go in front of a judge on Monday," Lankford told the AP.

"There are allegations of child trafficking and that really couldn't be farther from the truth," he added. The children "were going to get the medical attention they needed. They were going to get the clothes and the food and the love they need to be healthy and to start recovering from the tragedy that just happened."

Silsby said they had documents from the Dominican government, but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities before taking the children to the border.

She said the children were brought to the Haitian pastor by distant relatives and only those with no close family would be put up for adoption.

The 10 Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Friends and relatives have been in touch with them through text messages and phone calls, Lankford said.

The group had described its plans on a Web site where it asked for tax-deductible contributions to help it "gather" 100 orphans and bus them to Cabarete before building a more permanent orphanage in the Dominican town of Magante.

"Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon our hearts the need to go now versus waiting until the permanent facility is built," the group wrote.

Uneasy relationship
As the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti is in a difficult spot — it needs aid, but deeply resents foreign meddling. Many have an uneasy relationship with American evangelical Christian groups that funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into their missions in Haiti.

Since Haiti became the world's first black republic in 1804, its people have seen several U.S. military occupations, was wrongly blamed for the spread of AIDS and has been vilified for the Voodoo traditions brought from West Africa. Voodoo is one of Haiti's two constitutionally recognized religions, along with Roman Catholicism, and two-thirds of Haiti's 9 million people are said to worship its spirits.

One Voodoo leader said the Idaho group's plan — to give each child "new life in Christ" while facilitating their adoptions by "loving Christian families" in the United States — is deeply offensive.

"There are many who come here with religious ideas that belong more in the time of the inquisition," said Max Beauvoir, head of Haiti's Voodoo Priest's Association, which represents thousands of priests and priestesses. "These types of people believe they need to save our souls and our bodies from ourselves. We need compassion, not proselytizing now, and we need aid — not just aid going to people of the Christian faith."

ITN correspondent Emma Murphy, reporting for NBC News, as well as the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Alleged child traffickers jailed in Haiti

  1. Closed captioning of: Alleged child traffickers jailed in Haiti

    >>> al, thank you. was it a crime or an act of kindness? ten members of a u.s. church group have spent a second night in a haitian jail, accused of attempted child trafficking . they were arrested over the weekend at they tried to take 33 children out of quake-ravaged haiti . nbc's michelle kosinski is in port-au-prince with the latest.

    >> reporter: what the haitian government calls a crime, this american church group calls an act of kindness. they say they were trying to rescue some kids, and they were arrested trying to bring them across the border without proper documentation. now there's a question as to whether all of these children were really orphans at all. 33 haitian children, ages two months to 12 years. are at the center of an international custody dispute. it started saturday, when ten americans were arrested. accused of trying to traffic in children. when they arrived at the dominican border with a bus load of kids. and no official documents.

    >> without passport, without paper.

    >> reporter: the american baptist group, mostly from idaho, say they took the children from an orphanage that was test toyed in haiti . they thought they had all the permission that they would need.

    >> we had been told by a number of people, officials that it was okay for the pastor to sign. that he was entrusting them into our care and the dominican government had approved we would be able to care for those children in the dominican republic .

    >> reporter: the group, calling itself the haitian rescue mission , said it planned to take the kids to ha hotel in the dominican republic for now. while they continue to work to build a orphanage that started before the earthquake. they were stopped at the border and some officials in haiti question whether the children are all actually orphans.

    >> we'll reunite them with their parents or relatives. because we already know that some of these children still have parents, because an early girl might be eight or nine years old, told us crying, i'm not an orphan. i do have my parents.

    >> reporter: the church group insists they meant no harm, only good. the haitian government has instituted strict rules to make sure that children are adopted properly. and there's been a fight over who will pay for taking care of the most vulnerable here. last week, u.s. military evacuations of critically-injured earthquake victims were halted because of misunderstandings over where they would be treated and at whose expense. leaving lives in the balance . like 5-year-old bettina joseph, dying of tetanus. late sunday, the white house announced that the medical flights will resume today. bettina and two others finally got to go to philadelphia. as for this american church group, they were under the impression they would face a judge this morning. but it's unclear whether that will actually happen. and whether they'll be released any time soon. meredith?

    >> michelle kosinski , thank you very much.

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