Baptist group accused of child-trafficking in Haiti

Monday, February 1, 2010 – Globe and Mail

PORT-AU-PRINCE — At least 10 of the 33 Haitian children a group of American Baptists tried to take across the border into the Dominican Republic have parents, says the group taking care of them while the Haitian government investigates an alleged case of child trafficking.

Ten Americans are in custody and set to appear in Port-au-Prince court this morning, accused by the Haitian government of trying to take the children out of the country without proper documentation.

Aid groups have warned against hasty adoptions or transfers of vulnerable children in the wake of the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s infrastructure.

The church organizing the transfer of the children says the group had only the best of intentions, that it wanted to put the children in a Dominican Republic orphanage and that it was sure all the children were parentless.

On Friday evening, a truck was stopped at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was carrying 33 Haitian children, some as young as two months old.

The Baptist group said the children were going to a newly established orphanage – New Life Children’s Refuge – in the Dominican Republic, where eventually 100 Haitian children were to be housed.

The Haitian government says the group had no approval and no documentation that would allow them to take the children out of the country.

“They tried to leave with the children without the proper documents and without following the formal procedures,” said public security secretary Amarick Louis.

“… Specialized units, and territorial units, have been instructed to take all appropriate measures against people who don’t respect the rules.”

Drew Ham, a pastor with the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, said there has been a gross misunderstanding. The group was trying to help, he said, and thought they were acting by the book.

“They had contacted the Dominican government, they had the paperwork they were told they needed to have, they went to Haiti and were in contact with an orphanage there,” he said. “From all our accounts, this is simply a paperwork issue. And the next thing our folks know, they’re being arrested.”

In the wake of the earthquake that shattered Haiti and left tens of thousands of people dead, both governments and private organizations have scrambled to provide for the children made particularly vulnerable by the damage.

Canada, for its part, expedited processing procedures for the 217 Haitian orphans whose adoption had already been approved by the Haitian government. Another group arrived in Canada this past weekend.

But Haiti declared last week that no new adoptions could take place without the Prime Minister’s express permission. “The government has given very clear instructions for everything concerning adoptions of children,” Mr. Louis said. “Everything must be done in a formal manner, following the norms that have been established.”

Mr. Louis said because the alleged offence took place on Haitian soil, any trials will be held in Haiti and the state is prepared to pursue the case.

The 10 Americans were being held yesterday in a makeshift jail in the judicial police headquarters, which has also doubled as headquarters for Haiti’s hobbled government. Personnel outside the jail said the Americans are expected to appear in a court in Delmas, a nearby Port-au-Prince district, this morning.

Government ministers wouldn’t say where the children were being kept. But members of SOS Children’s Village, an arm of the international orphans’ agency in Santo, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, said yesterday the children had been taken there late Saturday afternoon, hungry and dehydrated.

“Today they are much better but still some of them are very, very sad because … they’re waiting to be reunited with their parents,” said George Willeit, a member of SOS Children’s emergency team.

Mr. Willeit said at least 10 of the children have parents.

Pastor Ham said all the children had been verified as orphans and had come from an established Port-au-Prince orphanage, though he couldn’t provide its name. He said the detained Americans have had their phones confiscated and he hasn’t heard from them.

UNICEF spokesman Kent Page said disaster zones are terrible environments for adoptions. The chaos following an event like last month’s earthquake creates innumerable “unaccompanied children,” and it’s almost impossible to ascertain who has living relatives and who does not, he said.

UNICEF is in the process of registering all the unaccompanied children it has found in the aftermath of the quake, a process that could take months.

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