Americans charged with kidnapping in Haiti

Friday, February 5, 2010 – Globe and Mail
With a report from the Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Ten American Baptists face charges of child abduction and criminal association after trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without the government’s permission.

The group members, accused of flouting Haiti’s child-protection laws when the country is at its most vulnerable, were led out of a closed-door courtroom session yesterday afternoon, through a crush of reporters and onlookers and into police vehicles waiting to escort them back to the makeshift jail cells where they have spent the past week.

The Haitian government has imposed a moratorium on international adoptions following the earthquake, fearing that in the ensuing chaos the risk of child-trafficking, already a mounting problem in Haiti, would increase.

The abduction charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison but are not the most serious the 10 could have faced, that of child-trafficking. The criminal-association charges carry maximum sentences of nine years.

Edwin Coq, the Port-au-Prince lawyer representing the Americans, suggested the case against Laura Silsby, the group’s leader, is far stronger. The others had no idea they lacked the necessary documents to take the children out of the country, he said, but Ms. Silsby did.

“I’m going to do everything I can to get the nine out,” he said, suggesting that the Haitian authorities will be much more reluctant to release Ms. Silsby.

The Christian group insists the affair is a result of a misunderstanding over documents. The Haitian government has treated it much more seriously, as it attempts to assert control over a country in tumult.

On the night of Jan. 29, Haitian police stopped a blue and white bus carrying 33 Haitian children – two just two months old, the oldest aged 12.

The plan for the New Life Children’s Refuge, organized primarily by two Idaho churches, was to bring the children to an orphanage they were establishing in the Dominican Republic. A website for the orphanage said the children would be available for adoption through U.S. agencies.

Pastors from Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, at first said all the children had been found through a prominent priest and had been confirmed parentless.

But the vast majority of the children have parents. Families in the impoverished town of Calebasse say they got a call on Jan. 26 from Isaac Adrien, a manager at the local orphanage, asking if they wanted to send their children to the Dominican Republic, where the Baptist group would pay for their education.

Several parents said the group promised to arrange for frequent visits to see how the children were doing.

Mr. Adrien acted as a go-between for the Americans, they say. The other 13 children came from orphanages in Delmas, a district of Port-au-Prince.

The case has highlighted the profound vulnerability of Haiti’s children, especially in the wake of an earthquake that has killed up to 200,000 people and displaced more than one million.

Government officials and children’s advocates say they fear the case is just one among many playing out across Haiti as both well-meaning Samaritans and child-traffickers take advantage of the chaos that has followed the earthquake to remove children from the country without following proper procedures.

Last month the government halted all international adoptions, stipulating that any Haitian child being taken out of the country must have the express permission of Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

Mr. Bellerive castigated the Americans this week, saying they “knew what they were doing was wrong.”

The fate of the 33 children the Americans allegedly took with them remains unclear. They’re still being cared for at SOS Children’s Village in Santo, outside of Port-au-Prince. Georg Willeit, a spokesman for the children’s organization, said yesterday they’re still waiting for word from the social services ministry on whether the children can be reunited with their families. Several parents came to visit the centre to speak with staff, he said, but they haven’t been allowed to visit the children.

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