Is this a case of human trafficking or do-gooders who failed to cross the t's and dot the i's? You be the judge.
Ronda Kaysen: The 10 Americans who were arrested in Haiti last week for attempting to illegally transport 33 children out of the country ignored warnings that their plans were against the law, an American human rights advocate told the United Nations in an e-mail.
The new revelations paint a darker picture of the Americans who are sitting in a Haitian jail in Port-au-Prince awaiting a hearing to determine their future.
On January 29, a group of Americans from Idaho, Texas, and Kansas were arrested at the Haitian-Dominican Republic border when they failed to present proper paperwork for 33 children in their custody. The children ranged in age from two months to 12 years old, and had their names scribbled on tape affixed to their shirts. The group told border guards that the children were all orphans, and that they planned to take them to a hotel at a Dominican resort until a more permanent orphanage could be built.
But many of the kids said they had parents and wanted to see them. It has since come to light that as many as 20 of them have living parents.
"One [9-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," George Willeit, a spokesman for SOS Children's Village, where the children are now being held, told reporters.
Family members have come forward claiming that Laura Silsby, the group's leader, approached parents, promising their children school, soccer fields, and a swimming pool. She told parents that the government had given her permission to move the children out of Haiti, parents said.
The group, which calls itself the New Life Children's Refuge, planned to take as many as 100 Haitian children out of Haitian orphanages and off the streets of Port-au-Prince and place them in a new orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Only the orphanage hasn't been built yet. So, in the meantime, the kids were going to stay at a 45-room hotel in a Dominican resort.
Haiti has a dark history of human trafficking, some of it involving the sex trade industry. Given these facts, immediately after the earthquake, all international adoptions, aside from those already underway, were halted.
The Haitian government appears to want to send a message with this case. The list of charges against the 10 is serious, including charges of abduction of underage minors, human trafficking, and conspiracy. Silsby has maintained since her arrest that the group did nothing wrong, and that all of this is a paperwork mistake.
"We know that this is absolutely not trafficking and we know without a doubt that God is going to reveal truth and enable us to be free," Silsby told reporters from a jail cell.
But the journalist and human rights advocate Anne-christine d'Adesky penned an e-mail to the U.N. painting a different picture of how things transpired, one that shows that Silsby was not a naïve do-gooder, but a woman who willfully broke the law.
D'Adesky, who hails from a prominent Haitian family, said she met with Silsby on January 24 in a hotel in the Dominican Republic. Silsby told her that an unnamed Dominican official had given her the green light to transport the children.
"I informed her that this would be regarded as illegal even with some 'Dominican' minister authorizing, since the children are Haitian," d'Adesky wrote. D'Adesky told the Wall Street Journal that Silsby replied: "We have been sent by the Lord to rescue these children, and if it's in the Lord's plan we will be successful."
The U.N. is taking the missive seriously. "The implications of what she wrote are highly relevant to the status of this case before the Haitian courts," Fabrizio Hochschild, the top U.N. official addressed in Ms. d'Adesky's e-mail, told the Journal.
In another blow to Silsby's group, Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive told reporters on Monday, "It is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."
Despite the international firestorm, New Life has supporters at home who insist this is all a big mistake.
Human trafficking is "a very disturbing allegation," Clint Henry, senior pastor of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, where most of the accused are parishioners, told momlogic. "This was not about adopting children. This trip is just about trying to help children in Haiti. We thought, 'We have resources, we have people, and we are willing to go into a dangerous place and see if we can alleviate the suffering.' Our intentions were the best."
He added that this was the group's first foray into international aid work. Henry said the children had all been taken from a damaged orphanage in Port-au-Prince, although he didn't know the orphanage's name, and could offer few specific details of Silsby's plans. The person who knows the most -- Silsby -- is sitting in a Haitian jail cell.
Although there were talks over the weekend about the possibility of trying the 10 in the United States, the State Department distanced itself from that idea when it said yesterday that Haiti's justice system is still in place, and that the case should be dealt with in Haiti. A hearing scheduled for today was delayed because of a problem finding a translator.
The group did not wholly go it alone. They had been in discussions with an Atlanta-based Haitian pastor, Jean Sainvil, who claims that they had verbal agreements from parents to take the kids out of the country. "I had verbal agreement from the parents with their names and their contact phone number," he told the "Today" show. "And also they have our contact number. If they want to go to the Dominican Republic to see the children or if they want to come get the children back from us."
But even if there was a verbal agreement from the parents, and the group's intentions were purely altruistic, child advocates say circumventing proper channels undermines the international adoption process and ultimately does more harm than good.
"A huge amount of time and attention is being spent on a case involving people who weren't following policies and procedures," Lisa Laumann, an associate vice president for child protection at Save the Children, told momlogic. "When people take the initiative into their own hands, it poses a number of risks."
Children who are moved without proper planning or foresight can end up being placed in dangerous or unsafe situations; they can be taken from family members who would have cared for them; and can experience additional and unnecessary trauma. After the 2004 tsunami, thousands of children were orphaned. But ultimately, 82 percent of those kids were placed with relatives or in foster homes.
The 33 children who Silsby's group took to the Dominican border were forced to sleep outside the police station on Friday night before they could be transferred to an orphanage. The orphanage director currently caring for them said many of the children were traumatized by their experience, and although some family members have tried to retrieve the kids, none will be released until the investigation is over.
"There is experience around the world and a body of research that suggests that children often fare best when they are with their families in their home communities in a home culture," said Laumann. "We need to do all that we can, to the extent that it's possible, to have children reunited with their families."
|Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek.com, Architectural Record, Huffington Post, New York Observer and AM New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.|