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.
When does adoption become child trafficking?
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."
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 [the 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.
The purpose of New Life's "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" was to "rescue Haitian orphans abandoned on the streets, makeshift hospitals or from collapsed orphanages in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, and bring them to New Life Children's Refuge in Cabarete, Dominican Republic."
"The majority of these children have families. Some of the older ones said their parents are alive, and some gave an address and phone numbers," said Patricia Vargas, the regional director of the Austria-based orphan charity SOS Children, which is now looking after the 33 children at its orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
The whole episode in Haiti is reminiscent of another orphan debacle in the African nation of Chad that the Monitor reported on in 2007. Back then, 16 Europeans from a France-based group called Zoe's Ark were charged with trying to smuggle 103 children out of eastern Chad in what the charity workers said was an attempt to save orphans affected by the conflict across the border in Sudan's Darfur region.
The group tried to circumvent Chadian authorities and fly the children out of the country on a chartered plane. But after it emerged that many of the children were not orphans or from Darfur, locals in Abéché, Chad, began protesting angrily outside the group's local offices. Western aid groups in the area began to fear for their safety as mistrust of foreigners began to swirl.
A few months later, six French members of Zoe's Ark were convicted of attempting to kidnap the 103 children and sentenced to eight years of hard labor and ordered to pay restitution amounting to close to $9 million.
Chad's president, Idriss Deby – a longtime beneficiary of French military and financial support – eventually pardoned the group and they were returned to France.
But not before significant damage had been done, as the Monitor reported.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the case played powerfully as an instance of white colonial arrogance; in France, it was seen as a misguided effort to save lives; and among humanitarian groups it has been seen as the kind of mission that puts experienced, professional aid workers at risk.
Back in Haiti, Justice Secretary Amarick Louis said a commission would meet today to determine whether the New Life group would go before a judge.
Meanwhile, the group is praying for a little leniency.
"We are trusting the truth will be revealed and we are praying for that," said Silsby.
Back in Idaho at the Central Valley Baptist Church where five of the 10 arrested workers attend services, the Rev. Clint Henry told CNN that the whole community is disturbed by the events, but praying for understanding.
Said Mr. Henry: "We are praying that the motive and intent will be clearly understood in the courts down there."