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Haiti 'orphan' rescue mission: Adoption or child trafficking?

This weekend's arrest of 10 members of an Idaho-based Baptist charity for trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border with the Dominican Republic without proper paperwork has become an international incident.

By Matthew ClarkStaff writer / February 1, 2010

Clint Henry, head pastor at Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, paused for a moment while taking questions from the media on Sunday.

Charlie Litchfield/Idaho Press-Tribune/AP

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When does adoption become child trafficking?

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That question seems to be the last thing that Haiti's notoriously ill-equipped, underfunded, and understaffed government needs to be tackling in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake that leveled the capital, Port-au-Prince. But Saturday's arrest of 10 members of an Idaho-based Baptist charity for trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border with the Dominican Republic without proper paperwork has become an international incident. And it now threatens to be a serious distraction from the daunting task of providing food, shelter, and security for the more than 1 million left homeless by the quake.

The members of the New Life Children's Refuge said that they were only trying to provide a better life for the children and denied that the group had done anything wrong. But the problem with following their highest sense of right without proper permission from the authorities is that it may technically be child trafficking. And in a weak country where that illicit trade has exploded in recent years, the authorities are taking this quite seriously.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive denounced the group’s “illegal trafficking of children.”

"This is an abduction, not an adoption," said Social Affairs Minister Yves Christallin, explaining that children need authorization from the ministry to leave the country.

Apparently, the New Life members had no government-issued paperwork of any kind as they attempted to take the children across the border. "When asked about the children's documents, they had no documents," Haitian Culture and Communications Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said.

"You can't just go and take a child out of a country – no matter what country you are in," said Kent Page, a spokesman for UNICEF in Haiti. "There are processes that have to be followed. You can't just pick up a child and walk out of a country with a child, no matter what your best intentions are."

What is 'the right thing' to do?

Group leader Laura Silsby said they paid no money for the children and that the group had documents from the Dominican government but did not seek paperwork from Haitian authorities. "In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing," said Ms. Silsby.

But what is the right thing to do? Smart, earnest people agree to disagree.

As the Monitor reported last week, the increased US demand for adopting Haitian children in the wake of the earthquake is "churning up the advocates of streamlined adoption procedures for Haiti against those who say too-hasty adoption can hurt the children and birthparents that in some cases still exist."

“It’s tempting to want to airlift children out of Haiti, getting them out of harm’s way immediately,” says Michelle Brané, director of [t
he New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission's]
detention and asylum program. “But it’s important to remember that in the current chaos, thousands of people, including parents and children, are still searching for their families. Removing children from countries too quickly after an emergency,” she adds, can “jeopardize family reunification efforts … and increase the risk that children will fall into the hands of traffickers and other ill-intentioned individuals.
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