Haiti's Children: Save Them, Don't Just Take Them

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John Moore / Getty

Laura Silsby, left, the head of New Life Children's Refuge, leaves a court hearing with Charisa Coulter, another member of her group, after being accused of child abduction and criminal association in Port-au-Prince

In Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest country, 1 in 10 children will die before reaching age 5 because of plagues like malnutrition. Who, then, can blame destitute Haitian mothers when they so often ask visitors from richer nations to take their sickly, underfed toddlers back to the U.S. or Canada or Europe to live? And who can fault those affluent folks for wanting to follow their inner Brad and Angelina, swaddle those kids on the spot and head for the airport — especially after the earthquake that ravaged Haiti last month and left those children more vulnerable than ever?

There are just two problems with that impulse — one that's fairly obvious (or should be to anyone from a country with rule of law) and another to which foreigners are too often oblivious. The first is that it's patently illegal, as 10 Baptist missionaries from Idaho found out Thursday, Feb. 4, when Haitian authorities formally charged them with criminally abducting 33 poor Haitian children they had tried to ferry out of the country in a bus, with no proper documents, for adoption in the U.S. Many if not most of the youths, it turns out, weren't even orphans; they were simply kids whose desperate parents said they could no longer support. The Americans deny the accusation and insist their efforts were humanitarian. But Haitians like Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive have called them "kidnappers."

The second and perhaps more serious downside to taking a Haitian youngster off a mother's beleaguered hands, or even taking a genuine orphan, without lawful process is that it harms the country's children more than it helps them. That's because — and here's the part that members of the Haitian élite like Bellerive would rather forget — it only encourages the rampant trafficking of children for which Haitians themselves are to blame. Some 300,000 of Haiti's youths, for example, are child slaves known in Creole as restaveks. Most fall into these straits because their penniless parents give them up to more affluent Haitian families, who are notorious for keeping them illiterate, heaping grinding labor on them and subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse. The sort of verbally agreed-upon transfer of minors that took place between Haitian families and the U.S. missionaries "is too often how child trafficking occurs in Haiti," says Joan Conn, executive director of the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation, which provides restaveks refuge in Haiti and abroad.

That's partly why the missionaries' arrests touched such a raw nerve in Haiti — and why the Haitian government felt compelled to make an example of them. Many had expected authorities to release the Americans, who were arrested on Jan. 29, with a slap on the wrist. That's what prosecutors in the North African nation of Chad eventually did in 2007 after arresting six French NGO workers accused of attempting to airlift 103 children from that war-torn country for adoption in France. But in recent years, Haiti's political class has come under increasing international criticism for turning a blind eye to the child-trafficking scourge. Indicting the misguided missionaries was a way to show that it is serious about applying the law for a change.

Still, no sooner had the Idaho Baptists been charged than there was talk about a deal that might send them to the U.S. for prosecution (in ways a practical suggestion, since the earthquake left Haiti's judiciary, like most institutions there, barely functioning). A State Department spokesman confirmed that the Obama Administration would consider "other legal avenues" for the U.S. citizens if the Haitians requested. Their Haitian attorney, Edwin Coq, said after the charges were announced that he was confident nine of the defendants would be released, leaving only the leader of the group, Laura Silsby, 40, to face trial; under Haitian law, she could receive up to 15 years in prison on each of the 33 kidnapping counts.

Silsby allegedly has a host of legal hassles to deal with back in Idaho — some of which may have foreshadowed the attitude toward legal niceties that prosecutors say she's displayed in Haiti. The Idaho Statesman reported this week that the Boise businesswoman and founder of the New Life Children's Refuge, affiliated with the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, has been a defendant in at least eight civil lawsuits, involving allegations from fraud to nonpayment for goods and services, including employee wages and lawyer fees. (Silsby defaulted in some cases and is contesting others.) The newspaper reported that Silsby was also cited frequently over the past decade for failure to register her car and provide insurance for it. The Statesman also found that the Idaho house where Silsby headquartered the New Life charity (which she runs with her children's nanny, who was also arrested in Haiti) was foreclosed on in December.

Since her arrest, Silsby has adamantly denied from her jail cell that she and her New Life assistants were involved in trafficking of any kind, telling the New York Times that "God wanted us to come here to help children." Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, interest in adopting Haitian children, especially in the U.S., has spiked. But while acknowledging that foreigners like Silsby may be well-meaning, Haitian officials point to the disregard for process as a big reason the government recently put the brakes on adoptions amid the postdisaster chaos.

Given how lax Haiti has historically been about legal protections for children, that was a welcome move. So was bringing charges against the missionaries, many believe. It might get more foreigners to recognize that perhaps the best way to help Haiti's children isn't by plucking them out of their country but by helping to rebuild Haiti so they'll have a safer place to grow up in; and it might prod more Haitians to recognize how wrong their own indifference to child trafficking is. Many of the children found in the New Life bus have since been reunited with their families — back in a battered country that may now feel a stronger commitment to shielding them.