The Missionary Baby-Lift Case: The View from Haiti's Streets

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John Moore / Getty

A member of New Life Children's Refuge accused of child-trafficking is escorted into a Port-au-Prince court hearing

The case of the 10 American missionaries charged with child kidnapping and criminal association in Haiti contains the perfect ingredients for a media meal ticket: drama, intrigue and Westerners at the mercy of a foreign judicial system.

But in the backdrop of the media circus outside the Port-au-Prince courthouse, where these Americans have been ushered to and fro for the past week, there are tents. These tents belong to women like 56-year-old Marie-Claude Jean, who lives on the cement driveway of the courthouse in hopes of getting some aid. She has observed the grandiose statements of lawyers and judges every day and says that, from what she can tell, the Americans should be freed based on good intentions. "When you take a child out of Haiti, they have more opportunities," says Jean. "It's not bad that they didn't have papers. It was a catastrophe, and we were dealing with difficult circumstances."

The Haitian judicial system seems to be in agreement. On Thursday, the Haitian judge investigating the case said the Americans should be released from jail but must remain in the country pending a final verdict. The 10 Baptist missionaries from Idaho were arrested on Jan. 29 after trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border to the Dominican Republic without legal documentation. The American women have denied that their actions had anything to do with child trafficking.

But for the group of Haitian women huddled outside the courthouse, it's the Haitian government that's on trial. Their speech becomes more emphatic as they assert that the government is treating the foreigners better than Haitian citizens, specifically when police officers cover the Americans' faces with jackets to shield them from the prying camera lenses. "If it was a Haitian, they would hit him over the head, not protect him," says Andrea Brezeau, 48.

Tension over this preferential treatment erupted even among Haitian journalists. As Haitian police officers transferred the missionaries from a police vehicle to a jail cell, one Haitian female journalist threw stones at the Americans screaming, "They should be showing their faces. They don't have a right to cover their faces."

That kind of local journalistic reaction is uncommon. Georges Michel, a senior political journalist for Radio Metropole, says that despite the frustrations of covering the trial, the majority of Haitian journalists have not paid close attention to this story because there are much larger issues in Haiti. "We have other concerns, like finding water, finding food, living on a day-to-day basis, finding some money to survive, looking for our dead friends and dead relatives. Everyone has immediate concerns," says Michel.

Still, one important question in the case remains: What will happen to the 33 children, who are currently residing in an orphanage outside the capital? Laurentius Lelly, 27, gave his two daughters, ages 4 and 6, to the American missionaries and says he last saw them at the S.O.S. orphanage last week. "When we visited they were in class, and that made me very happy," says Lelly, adding that he chose to send his daughters with the missionaries so they could have more opportunities. "If there was still a possibility for them to go abroad legally, with the government and the Ministry of Social Affairs knowing, I wouldn't have a problem."

Lelly and other parents from the mountain village of Callebas met with a judge earlier this week and answered questions about the circumstances behind the transfer. Lelly says there was no money exchanged and he gave his children willfully. He adds that if he had the means to take care of the children, he'd certainly fight for their custody. But he says he has yet to hear from the Haitian government about his children's future.

As they listen to children clapping hands while playing a game, the women at the courthouse say they can sympathize with Lelly's decision. Ginette B. Louis, 38, is a mother herself and says that many parents feel there is no future in their own country. "Why is it that these foreigners are taking our children, but the state is not?" asks Louis. "I can't judge the parents. The country doesn't offer anything."