The case divided the world in two camps: those who saw the Americans as potential child traffickers and those who saw them as do-gooders unfairly punished for trying to help victims of the earthquake.
Now that they are free, experts in kidnapping and global adoption hope that the incident provides lessons about caution and patience in future disasters.
“There is a universal urge to help children. That universal urge is so much more powerful when children are in a crisis,” says W. Warren Binford, an assistant professor of law and an expert on international children's rights at Willamette University College of Law in Oregon. But this case shows, she says, how “important it is not to act on those instincts, without considering the long-term consequences.”
Eight of 10 missionaries, who largely come from two Baptist churches in Idaho and were arrested for trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without the right paperwork, were freed Wednesday without posting bail, after a judge decided theirs was not criminal intent. "The parents of the kids made statements proving that they can be released," Judge Bernard Saint-Vil told the Associated Press.
The church members claimed initially that the children were abandoned or orphaned, but it was later learned that many of them had families who gave them to the group with hopes of a better life. Their case was also marred by revelations that a man who acted as their legal adviser is wanted on charges in El Salvador, including for human trafficking, and the US. He has denied those charges.
While the eight flew to Miami Wednesday evening, the judge continues to hold the group’s leader, Laura Silsby, as well as nanny Charisa Coulter. The judge reportedly wants to question them about a previous trip to Haiti, prior to the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Family reunification over adoption
The devastating quake that struck Haiti left up to 200,000 people dead, and in the days afterward, television screens across the globe flashed images of tearful, disoriented children, living in squalid camps throughout the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. Those images drew an outpouring of support. Many foreigners opened their wallets, or volunteered to be medics. Many also felt a desire to adopt Haitian children.
But Adam Pertman, the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, says that after immediate needs of food, shelter, and medical care are addressed, the world needs to act more methodically and put family reunification as a priority.
“People haven’t separated the two elements of dealing with the crisis: the absolute immediate need to help those affected: you have to do what you have to do to save them. That is a separate question from what do we do for them in the [long-term], making a decision about the rest of their lives,” says Pertman.
He says the impulse to rescue is present in the wake of any natural disaster, including after the tsunami in Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina in the US. But he says the high-profile nature of this case could be a cautionary tale. “A lot more people were saying, ‘let’s do anything, let’s do anything,' before this [child rescue] incident occurred,” he says. “I think it was certainly a wake up call.”
Child custody disputes
Most international kidnapping cases are child-custody disputes between parents of two nationalities – such as the Sean Goldman case in Brazil, or cases of children trafficking rings, says Christopher Schmidt, a lawyer at Bryan Cave LLP in St. Louis, Mo.,who has tried and won five international abduction cases,
And criminal elements can ride the wave of a humanitarian outpouring. In this case, the Haitian government sent a powerful message to the world in detaining the Americans, regardless of their intentions, says Ms. Binford, who says she believes the missionaries could have been most helpful, not by taking the children to the neighboring Dominican Republic, but providing their families with the resources to help them rebuild safe and secure lives in Haiti.
“The Haitian government did the right thing in sending a message to everyone around the world that they are a functioning government, and they will do everything within reason to protect their children,” she says. “It was important that the Haitian government show its strength, especially to those who may have been less honorable.”
And since the judge continues to detain the group’s leader, Mr. Schmidt says Haiti “struck the right balance between showing mercy and using their discretion to let most go while pursuing the people who organized it.”
Had all members of the Idaho group been let go, anger that the group was getting a “free pass,” perhaps even because of the clout the US wields in Haiti, could have mounted. “I think the real key to remember is that it is a crime, in any country in the world, including Haiti and the US, to go to a foreign country, even if intentions are humanitarian, and to take children without consent of both parents and the government,” says Schmidt.