Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pastor Defends Church Members Held In Haiti

Ten U.S. Baptists were being held in the Haitian capital Sunday after trying to take 33 children out of Haiti at a time of growing fears over possible child trafficking.

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 earthquake survivors aged from 2 months to 12 years.

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.

The children, some of them sick and dehydrated, were taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages, which was trying to find their parents or close relatives, said a spokesman there, George Willeit.

"One child, an 8- or 9-year-old, said she thought she was going to some sort of summer or vacation camp in the Dominican Republic," Willeit said.

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.

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 US$10,000.

Silsby said her group, including members from Texas and Kansas, paid no money for the children, whom she said they obtained from a Haitian pastor named 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.

Some members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, wept on Sunday as Pastor Clint Henry reported the team had been detained and asked for prayers.

"They have been arrested. They've been charged with child trafficking," he told the congregation. "You need to understand that obviously those are serious charges, but they're in a nation where this has been a practice, a wicked and evil practice."

Willeit, the SOS spokesman, said the children arrived at his orphanage "very hungry, very thirsty, some dehydrated." All had their names written on pink tape on their shirts.

Following the quake, 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. Many children in Haitian orphanages have parents who cannot afford to care for them.

The government now requires Prime Minister Max Bellerive 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.

From The AP; ABC News; Fox News; The IOM

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