PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten U.S. Baptists arrested trying to take 33 children out of earthquake-shattered Haiti say they were just trying to do the right thing, applying Christian principles to save Haitian children.
Prime Minister Max Bellerive told The Associated Press on 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.
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“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.”
Haiti’s overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the quake amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold.
Without proper documents and concerted efforts to track down their parents, they could be forever separated from family members able and willing to care for them. Bellerive’s personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
The orphanage where the children were later taken said at least some of the kids have living parents, who were apparently told that the children were going on an extended holiday from the post-quake misery.
The church group’s own mission statement said it planned to spend only hours in the devastated capital, quickly identifying children without immediate families and busing them to a rented hotel in the Dominican Republic without bothering to get permission from the Haitian government.
Whatever their intentions, other child welfare organizations in Haiti called the plan reckless.
“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.”
The church members, most from Idaho, said they were only trying to rescue abandoned and traumatized children.
“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 AP at Haiti’s judicial police headquarters, where she and others were taken after their arrest Friday night trying to cross the border into the Dominican Republic in bus.
Silsby admitted she had not obtained the proper Haitian documents for the children, whose names were written on pink tape on their shirts.
The children, ages 2 months to 12 years old, were taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children’s Villages, where spokesman George Willeit said they arrived “very hungry, very thirsty.”
A 2- to 3-month old baby was dehydrated and had to be hospitalized, he said.
“One (8-year-old) girl was crying, and saying, ‘I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.’ And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that,” Willeit said.
The orphanage was working to reunite the children with their families, joining a concerted effort by the Haitian government, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other NGOs.
Willeit said a woman from the group had spent time in Port-au-Prince prior to the quake winning the trust of people in a neighborhood whose children were taken.
In Idaho, the Rev. Clint Henry denied that his Central Valley Baptist Church had anything to do with child trafficking and said he didn’t believe such reports.
He urged his tearful congregation to pray to God to “help them as they seek to resist the accusations of Satan and the lies that he would want them to believe and the fears that he would want to plant into their heart.”
As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is in a difficult spot — it needs aid, but deeply resents foreign meddling. Many have mixed feelings toward Christian groups that funnel hundreds of millions into missions in Haiti.
“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.”
Two-thirds of Haiti’s 9 million are said to practice Voodoo, a melange of beliefs from parts of west Africa and Catholicism.
Many religious groups run legitimate adoption agencies and orphanages in Haiti. Some of the children in them aren’t actually orphans, but have been left by relatives who can’t afford their care.
The parents interviewed at the tent camp said they understood giving their kids up may mean never seeing them again.
“I see all these kids running around and I can’t do anything for them,” said Joseph Emmanuel Amazon, 53, a laborer who struggles to support seven kids. “They would be better off in another country. I’d like one of them to go to the United States.”
His wife, Marie Rita Pierre, agreed: “My youngest daughter wants to go to university. We can’t help her”
Silsby told the AP that she hadn’t been following news reports while in Haiti, and didn’t think she needed Haitian permission to take them out of the country. She said they only had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children, who she said were brought to a Haitian pastor by their distant relatives.
Silsby, who incorporated the nonprofit New Life Children’s Refuge in Idaho on Nov. 25, said she could not provide a contact number for the pastor who put her in touch with the relatives because her papers and cell phone were taken by police.
Child trafficking “is exactly what we are trying to combat,” Silsby said.
Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and 18-year-old daughter were being held, told the AP that U.S. consular officials told him a court hearing was scheduled for Monday. The Americans were being held at judicial police headquarters.
However, Haiti’s justice secretary, Amarick Louis, told the AP on Sunday that a commission would meet Monday to determine if the group would go before a judge.
The Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. They are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest Protestant denomination and has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide.
The Idaho churches had elaborate plans before the earthquake to shelter up to 200 Haitian and Dominican boys and girls in the Magante beach resort, complete with a school and chapel as well as villas and a seaside cafe catering to adoptive U.S. parents.
Henry, the senior pastor, said the 500-member church wanted to help “because we believe that Christ has asked us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, and that includes children.”
He said church members had given several thousand dollars to the mission.
When the quake hit, Silsby and her team decided to move faster.
Silsby, who runs an online shopping site in Idaho, quickly put their plan on Web site, soliciting tax-deductible donations while preparing their trip.
Associated Press Writers Carolina Correa in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jessie Bonner and Keith Ridler in Idaho and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this story.