‘Orphan Rescue’ attempt hits nerve among Haitians

One of the 33 Haitian children who were being taken out of the country sat yesterday at the SOS Children’s Village outside of Port-au-Prince. One of the 33 Haitian children who were being taken out of the country sat yesterday at the SOS Children’s Village outside of Port-au-Prince. (Roberto Schmidt/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Frank Bajak
Associated Press / February 1, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Ten US Baptists who were detained while trying to take 33 children out of earthquake-shattered Haiti without government permission say they were just trying to do the right thing, applying Christian principles to save Haitian children.

But their “Orphan Rescue Mission’’ is striking nerves in a country that has long suffered from child trafficking and foreign interventions, and where much of the aid is delivered in ways that challenge Haiti’s own religious traditions.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive yesterday told the Associated Press that the group was arrested and is under judicial investigation “because it is illegal trafficking of children, and we won’t accept that.’’

The Americans are the first people to be arrested since the Jan. 12 earthquake on such suspicions. No charges have been filed.

The government and established child welfare agencies are trying to slow Haitian adoptions amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Without proper documents and concerted efforts to track down their parents, they could be forever separated from family members able and willing to care for them.

Yves Cristallin, Haiti’s social affairs minister, said the Americans were suspected of taking part in an illegal adoption scheme.

The orphanage where the children were later taken said some of the children have parents who were apparently told the children were going on a holiday from the post-quake misery.

The church group’s own mission statement said it planned to spend only hours in the devastated capital, quickly identifying children without immediate families and busing them to a rented hotel in the Dominican Republic without bothering to get permission from the Haitian government.

Whatever the group’s intentions, other child welfare organizations in Haiti said the plan was foolish at best.

“The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse, but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake,’’ said Deb Barry, a protection expert at Save the Children, which wants a moratorium on new adoptions. “The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labeled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high.’’

The church members, most from Idaho, said they were trying to rescue abandoned and traumatized children.

“In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing,’’ the group’s spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, said from inside Haiti’s judicial police headquarters, where she and others were being held until a hearing today.

Officials said they lacked the proper documents for the children, whose names were written on pink tape on their shirts.

The children, ages 2 months to 12 years, were taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children’s Villages, where spokesman George Willeit said they arrived “very hungry, very thirsty, some dehydrated.’’

The orphanage was working yesterday to reunite the children with their families, joining a concerted effort by the Haitian government, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other NGOs.

In Idaho, the Rev. Clint Henry denied that his Central Valley Baptist Church had anything to do with child trafficking.