22 Nov 2010

Child snatchers for God: 10 American Baptists arrested for trying to smuggle children out of Haiti

CBC News - Canada February 1, 2010

Arrests stir debate over Haiti adoptions

The debate over international adoptions has intensified in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake and the arrest of 10 Americans for trying to take children out of the country without permission.

Some groups are urging a long moratorium on new adoptions from Haiti, saying there is too much chaos, and the risks of mistakes or child trafficking are too high.

Other groups fear any long-term clampdown will consign countless children to lives in institutions or on the street, rather than in the loving homes of adoptive parents.

Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption, said the arrests of 10 U.S. Baptists would probably undercut his organization's push to expand adoptions from Haiti.

"It was a critical mistake — the Haitian government has been very clear they did not want any children leaving without its express permission," Johnson said Monday. "Maybe the Americans thought they were helping 33 kids, but now there's going to be a much slower process and maybe even a ban on future adoptions — and that would be a tragedy."

The Americans, arrested Friday near Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic, are being held at police headquarters in Port-au-Prince while Haitian and U.S officials discuss their fate.
Americans may face trial in U.S.

Officials in Haiti say they are talking with U.S. diplomats about whether the Americans should be sent to the United States for prosecution.

Haiti's communications minister said they might have to face justice in the U.S. because Haiti's court system has been crippled and courthouses destroyed by the earthquake.

Even before the arrests, the Haitian government called a halt to new international adoptions. Numerous organizations have endorsed the moratorium, some of them citing UN guidelines recommending that at least two years should be spent tracing lost families before adoptions are considered.

"No matter how horrific the situation looks … the full process of reuniting children with parents and relatives must be completed," said Deb Barry, a Save the Children child protection expert.

The consequences of rushing to help children leave Haiti can be severe, according to the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

In one case, the service said, a 12-year-old boy was allowed onto a U.S. military plane without documentation or relatives in the U.S. and is now in limbo while officials try to find out if he left family behind in Haiti.

In another case, a three-year-old boy arrived on a private plane with other orphans, even though the family who had been planning to adopt him had changed their mind and abandoned the process.

"It's an example of why it's important to be patient and thorough," said Olivia Faires, director of children's services for the Lutheran service. "It does add trauma, even in the midst of the chaos, to remove them from their customary surroundings."
Concern about overreaction

Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who supports expanded international adoption, expressed concern about a possible overreaction to the arrests.

"If not all their paperwork was together, that doesn't seem to me the worst crime in the world," she said. "The Haitian authorities should be trying to help a lot of kids get out — both the kids in the process of adoption and others who appear not to have parents or relatives able to take care of them.

"It is astoundingly hypocritical that people, in the name of helping children, would close down adoption," she said.

Other groups, however, say international adoptions should not be promoted until other options are exhausted.

SOS Children's Villages, which is caring for the 33 Haitian children targeted by the arrested Americans, said international adoptions "should be avoided until every effort has been undertaken to reunite each child with her/his family or to provide suitable care within the country."

The organization's CEO, Heather Paul, said U.S. families might prove useful at some point in providing adoptive homes for children suffering medical or psychological problems from the quake. Meanwhile, she urged restraint.

"Sometimes Americans believe that children are better off in an American middle-class environment almost as a priority over being with their own family who are impoverished," Paul said. "I don't believe that. Children — they just love their families."

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New York Times - February 2, 2010

Case Stokes Haiti’s Fear for Children, and Itself


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — “God wanted us to come here to help children, we are convinced of that,” Laura Silsby, one of 10 Americans accused of trafficking Haitian children, said Monday through the bars of a jail cell here. “Our hearts were in the right place.”

Whatever their intentions, the Americans who were detained late Friday at the Dominican border with 33 children struck a deep emotional chord in this earthquake-ravaged country.

Even as Haiti’s crippled government asserted itself in the name of defending the nation’s children, officials made it clear that more was at stake. In the wake of the worst natural disaster in Haiti’s history, the authorities have opened the country to a flood of international assistance, some of it coming uncomfortably close to infringing on national sovereignty.

The 10 Americans, the authorities said, had crossed the line.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive angrily denounced them as “kidnappers” who “knew what they were doing was wrong.” Justice Minister Paul Denis said, “We may be weakened, but without laws the Haitian state would cease to exist.”

And the chief of the National Judicial Police, Frantz Thermilus, said: “What surprises me is that these people would never do something like this in their own country. We must make clear they cannot do such things in ours.”

The Americans, most of whom are affiliated with two Baptist churches in Idaho, said they were trying to rescue orphans from the earthquake and take them to an orphanage they were setting up in the Dominican Republic. But that noble intent came under scrutiny on Monday as questions were raised about whether all of the children were indeed orphans.

Ms. Silsby said that a Haitian pastor in Port-au-Prince, Jean Sanbil, of the Sharing Jesus Ministries, had brought her group the children, whose ages range from 2 months to 12 years.

While she acknowledged that she had no documentation to show that the children were orphans, or permission to remove them from the country, she said they had planned to return to the capital to complete the paperwork. She also said that in the midst of Haiti’s crisis, they thought they did not need the documents.

The Haitian authorities said the group planned to offer the children for adoption, but Ms. Silsby denied that.

“We intended to raise those children and be with them their entire lives, if necessary,” she said, standing behind a door of thick metal bars in pedal pushers, sandals and a blouse printed with palm trees. “These kind of children are sold across the border for the price of a chicken. We wanted to give them lives of joy and dignity in God’s love.”

But SOS Children’s Villages, an Austrian organization that runs the orphanage in Port-au-Prince where the children have been temporarily placed, said at least one of the children, an 8-year-old girl, told workers, “I am not an orphan,” according to the group’s Web site. The girl said she thought her mother had arranged a short vacation for her.

Haitian officials said that several of the children had parents, and that, unfortunately, this turn of events was one they had anticipated.

Fearful of the possibility that unscrupulous traffickers would take advantage of Haiti’s sundered justice system to take children from poor families for illegal adoptions, prostitution or slavery, the government had halted all adoptions except those already in motion before the earthquake. Mr. Bellerive’s signature is now required for the departure of any child.

For the government, the arrests provided an opportunity to send a strong message, and the message was outrage. “If people want to help children of Haiti,” said Marie-Laurence Jocelin Lassègue, a government spokeswoman, “this is not the way to do it.

“There can be no questions about taking our children off the streets,” she added. “It is wrong. And those who do so will be judged.”

Although many of the country’s judicial and law enforcement structures, including the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court and numerous police stations, lie in ruins, Haitian officials said they were exploring options for prosecuting the Americans in Haiti. But several officials acknowledged that if there was to be any trial at all, it would probably be in the United States.

Mr. Bellerive said the Americans could face serious charges, although none have been filed yet.

In Washington, the State Department said the American Embassy had been granted unlimited access to the Americans, but where and whether they would be prosecuted was up to Haiti. “It’s their country,” said Philip J. Crowley, a department spokesman. “The judgment is really up to the Haitian government.”

Ms. Silsby’s effort appeared to be a project of a group called New Life Children’s Refuge, which is described on the Web site of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, as a “nonprofit Christian ministry dedicated to rescuing, loving and caring for orphaned, abandoned and impoverished Haitian and Dominican children.”

The group was founded by Ms. Silsby, 40, and Charisa Coulter, 24, Ms. Silsby’s live-in nanny, who was also among those jailed in Port-au-Prince. Most of the group who went to Haiti belonged to Eastside Baptist Church or Central Valley Baptist in Meridian, Idaho, while others came from Texas and Kansas, Ms. Silsby said.

A document on the Eastside Baptist Web site laid out the group’s plans for a “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission.”

The itinerary for Jan. 23 said: “Drive bus from Santo Domingo into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages, then return to the D.R.”

The itinerary said the group planned to take the children to a 45-room hotel the group leased in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, where they would live until a permanent orphanage was constructed in nearby Magante.

Although Ms. Silsby said the group did not intend to offer the children for adoption, the Web site said they would “strive” to “provide opportunities for adoption through partnership with New Life Adoption Foundation,” which subsidizes adoptions “for loving Christian parents who would otherwise not be able to afford to adopt.”

The status of New Life Adoption Foundation was not immediately clear. The group is not registered as an adoption agency in Idaho and does not appear to be registered as a federal nonprofit. The group also did not appear on a list of accredited international adoption agencies on the Web site of the State Department.

Mel Coulter, Ms. Coulter’s father, said of the group, “It was never their intent to establish an adoption agency or anything similar to it.”

“I can’t at all question where they went and what they did because I’m really convinced it was at God’s direction,” he said. “They were acting in faith. That may sound trivial, but they were acting not only in faith but God’s faith.”

But in Haiti, the group may have run into worldly issues they had not anticipated.

Haiti has long been a target for trafficking organizations, Mr. Denis, the justice minister, said, and in the wake of the earthquake authorities had alerted police and judicial officials that criminal organizations might attempt to take advantage of the disaster.

Asked what he thought about the Americans’ claims to be doing God’s work, Mr. Denis shrugged. “What is God’s I leave to God,” he said. “What’s the state’s is ours.”

William Yardley contributed reporting from Seattle, and Joseph Berger from New York.

This article was found at:
New York Times - February 2, 2010

Parents Tell of Children They Entrusted to Detained Americans


FERMATHE, Haiti — Guerlaine Antoine pushed aside a tub full of laundry, wiped her soapy hands on her T-shirt and rushed barefoot to bring out photos of the 8-year-old boy she entrusted to 10 American Baptists.

“Do you think I would give this child away?” she said, opening a grade school yearbook to show her son, Carl Ramirez Antoine, in cap and gown, at his kindergarten graduation. “He is my only treasure.”

As a Haitian judge on Tuesday questioned five of the 10 Americans who were detained after trying to exit the country illegally with 33 children, the questions swirling around the case threw this town high in the mountains overlooking Port-au-Prince into confusion.

It is home to many of the children the Americans said they had planned to raise at a new orphanage in the Dominican Republic. The Americans said that the children had been orphaned in the earthquake, and that they had authorization from the Dominican government to bring the children into the country.

But it became clear on Tuesday that at least some of the children had not lost their parents in the earthquake.

And while the Americans said they did not intend to offer the children for adoption, the Web site for their orphanage makes clear that they intended to do so.

In addition to providing a swimming pool, soccer field and access to the beach for the children, the group, known as the New Life Children’s Refuge, said it also planned to “provide opportunities for adoption,” and “seaside villas for adopting parents to stay while fulfilling the requirement for 60-90 day visit.”

An empty house in an unfinished subdivision in Meridian, Idaho, is listed on the nonprofit incorporation papers filed in Idaho for the organization. The address was listed in November on papers Laura Silsby filed to establish New Life as a nonprofit. Two days after the papers were filed, records show, Ms. Silsby sold the house at a substantial loss.

Signs in front of the house on Tuesday offered it for sale as a foreclosed property.

The missionaries’ account of their activities in the Dominican Republic was hard to verify. They said they had been in the process of buying land and building a complex in Magante, on the north coast of the country.

Mayor Aniceto Balbuena said that he had been approached by two women about building an orphanage, but that the idea had fallen through because of a legal entanglement.

In Fermathe, where most of the children were born and raised, it was clear that while their homes were woefully lacking in many ways, some of the children — and perhaps many of them — were not orphans.

Kisnel and Florence Antoine said they sent two of their children with the Baptist missionaries because they had offered educational opportunities for the children in the Dominican Republic. Ketlaine Valmont said she had sent a son.

They showed school photos and academic awards to demonstrate that they had not selfishly sent their children away to lighten their load.

In a country where more than half of all children come from families too poor to keep them in school, the parents said that the Americans’ offer of an education seemed like a gift from heaven.

They also wanted to give opportunities for something better to their children. They said that the missionaries had promised they would be able to visit their children in the Dominican Republic, and that the children would be free to come home for visits.

“If someone offers to take my children to a paradise,” Mrs. Antoine said of Carl and her daughter Jenisa, “am I supposed to say no?”

Several parents denied accusations that they had been given money for their children, or that they wanted their children to be put up for adoption.

They trusted the Americans, they said, because they arrived with the recommendation of a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area. A woman who answered the door at Mr. Murphy’s house said he had gone to Miami. But she also said that he did not know anything about the Americans.

Ms. Valmont wondered whether her trust in Mr. Murphy had been misplaced.

“I just wanted him to have more than I have,” Ms. Valmont said of her 6-year-old son, Darwin. “What future can I give him here?”

Ginger Thompson reported from Fermathe, Haiti, and Shaila Dewan from Magante, Dominican Republic. William Yardley contributed reporting from Meridian, Idaho.

This article was found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/world/americas/03orphans.html

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