Baptist group denies trafficking in Haitian kids


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Charity official tells NBC that one girl said she still has parents

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.
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Arrests, denials
Jan. 31: NBC’s Michelle Kosinski reports on the arrests of 10 Americans, and allegations they are part of a child trafficking plot.
Nightly News


Haitian orphans look toward new beginning
A Pennsylvania church group travels to Port-au-Prince to rescue its orphans. All 12 children are moved out of the Haitian capital to a safer surrounding. Watch their journey.

NBC News and news services
updated 7:52 p.m. ET Jan. 31, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE - 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.
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.
CONTINUED : 18-year-old among those held1 | 2 | Next >


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Taking advantage of poverty and desperate people is bad behaviour by human standards


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Haiti PM: US Baptists knew removing kids was wrong


Two Haitian police officers sit next to Charisa Coulter, 24, of Boise, Idaho, one of the 10 Americans who were arrested while trying to bus children out of Haiti without proper documents or government permission, as she rests on a cot at the University of Miami's field hospital, near Port-au-Prince's international airport, Monday, Feb. 1, 2010. Coulter, who's diabetic, initially thought her insulin had gone bad in the heat but now she's being treated for what she said is either severe dehydration or the flu.
(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)






Women, who are U.S. citizens arrested for their involvement in a suspected illegal adoption scheme, talk to a journalist at a holding cell at the judicial police station in Port-au-Prince February 1, 2010. Haitian authorities were considering on Monday how to deal with a group of American missionaries accused of trying to illegally take children out of the quake-shattered Caribbean country.REUTERS/St-Felix Evens

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti's prime minister said Monday that 10 Americans who tried to take a busload of undocumented Haitian children out of the country knew that "what they were doing was wrong," and could be prosecuted in the United States.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive told The Associated Press that his country is open to having the Americans face U.S. justice, since most government buildings - including Haiti's courts - were crippled by the monster earthquake.
"It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents," Bellerive said. "And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."
If they were acting in good faith - as the Americans claim - "perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them," he said.
U.S. Embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept hosting judicial proceedings for the Americans, who are mostly from Idaho. For now, the case remains firmly in Haitian hands, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.
"Once we know all the facts, we will determine what the appropriate course is, but the judgment is really up to the Haitian government," he said.
Haitian officials insist some prosecution is needed to help deter child trafficking, which many fear will flourish in the chaos caused by the devastating Jan. 12 quake. The government and aid groups are still struggling to get food, water, shelter and basic health care to hundreds of thousands of survivors, and many parents are desperate to get help for their children.

U.S. diplomats have had "unlimited" access to the 10 detainees, and will monitor any court proceedings, said Crowley. They have not yet been charged.
Members of the church group insisted they were only trying to save abandoned and traumatized children - but appeared to lack any significant experience with Haiti, international charity work or international adoption regulations

After their arrest Friday near the border, the church group members were placed in two small concrete rooms in the same judicial police headquarters building where ministers have makeshift offices and give disaster response briefings.
"There is no air conditioning, no electricity. It is very disturbing," Attorney Jorge Puello told the AP by phone from the Dominican Republic, where the Baptists hoped to shelter the children in a rented beach hotel.
One of the Americans, Charisa Coulter of Boise, Idaho, was treated Monday at a field hospital for either dehydration or the flu. Looking pale as she lay on a green Army cot, the 24-year-old Coulter, was being guarded by two Haitian police officers.
"They're treating me pretty good," she said. "I'm not concerned. I'm pretty confident that it will all work out."
Investigators have been trying to determine how the Americans got the children, and whether any of the traffickers that have plagued the impoverished country were involved.
Puello said they came from a collapsed orphanage. Their detained spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, said they were "just trying to do the right thing," but she conceded she had not obtained the required passports, birth certificates and adoption certificates for them - a near impossible challenge in the post-quake mayhem.
Bellerive said that without the documents, the children were unlikely to reach the United States, as some of their families might have hoped.
The 33 kids, ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years, arrived with their names written in tape on their shirts at a children's home where some told aid workers they have surviving parents. Haitian officials said they were trying to reunite them.

"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," said George Willeit, a spokesman for SOS Children's Village, which runs the orphanage where they were taken.
The prime minister said some of those parents may have knowingly given their kids to the Americans in hopes they would reach the United States - a not uncommon wish for poor families in a country that already had an estimated 380,000 orphans before the quake.
Haiti's overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the earthquake amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Sex trafficking has been rampant in Haiti. Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
The arrested Americans' churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, which has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide, but they decided to mount their own "rescue mission" following the earthquake.
Also Monday:
• U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the U.S. military would fly critically ill quake survivors to patients in several states to avoid overloading Florida. The flights had stalled for five days due to concerns over space and costs in U.S. hospitals. Earlier, in Haiti, U.S. Army Col. Gregory Kane said the flights had resumed Sunday night. But the military later said there were no flights until Monday.
• In Washington, the American Red Cross said a waiting list of 1,000 flights for Haiti's airport is limiting delivery of relief supplies.
• In Haiti's first organized political demonstration since the quake, hundreds of people demanded that President Rene Preval resign. Participants called for the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest who was ousted in a 2004 rebellion. The rally was organized by Aristide supporters.
• A U.S. Navy carrier left Haiti after delivering about 500 tons of humanitarian aid. The USS Carl Vinson arrived off the Haitian coast three days after the quake. Its personnel evacuated 435 patients and its 19 helicopters flew more than 1,000 hours to support the relief operation. Ten of those choppers will remain in Haiti.
• Haiti announced "Operation Demolition," an effort to demolish all collapsed buildings - public and private, commercial and residential. The declaration by Aby Brun, an architect and member of the government's reconstruction team, followed comments by President Rene Preval that Haiti can take advantage of the catastrophe to reverse the trend of migration to Port-au-Prince. "We will destroy in an orderly and secure manner," Brun said.
• Many schools in Haiti's outlying provinces, which were not as affected by the quake, reopened Monday, and more provincial schools will reopen Feb. 8, the government said. It could take months for classes to resume in the hard-hit capital, where the disaster may have ended formal education altogether for many youngsters.
"They've cut off my leg," said Billie Flon, 9. He said he can't go back to school because his house was destroyed and he needs to beg for money.




Some of the 33 Haitian children on a bus who were stopped from crossing the border into the Dominican Republic with a group of 10 US missionaries late on Friday. The UN's humanitarian chief has admitted the Haiti relief effort is struggling as the United States prepared to resume airlifts of quake victims after a dispute over who foots the bill.(AFP/Roberto Schmidt)

___ Associated Press writers Michelle Faul and Paisley Dodds in Port-au-Prince, and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.


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