CALLEBAS, Haiti – Parents in this struggling village above Haiti's capital said Wednesday they willingly handed their children to American missionaries who showed up in a bus promising to give them a better life — contradicting claims by the Baptist group's leader that the children came from orphanages and distant relatives.
The 10 Baptists, most from Idaho, were arrested last week trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without the required documents, according to outraged Haitian officials, who have called them child traffickers.
An investigating magistrate was questioning the five men Wednesday after interrogating the women a day earlier. A district attorney will then determine whether to file charges, officials said.
The Haitian parents told The Associated Press they surrendered their children on Jan. 28, two days after a local orphanage worker acting on behalf of the Baptists convened nearly the entire village of about 500 people on a dirt soccer pitch to present the Americans' offer.
The orphanage worker, Issac Adrien, said he told the villagers their children would be educated at a home in the Dominican Republic so that they might eventually return to take care of their families.
Many parents jumped at the offer. The village school had collapsed and their homes were destroyed in Haiti's catastrophic Jan. 12 quake, and they had no money to feed the children, they said.
"It's only because the bus was full that more children didn't go," said Melanie Augustin, a 58-year-old who gave her 10-year-old daughter, Jovin, to the Americans. Ironically, Augustin had adopted Jovin because her birth parents couldn't afford to care for her.
Adrien said he brought the Americans to this mountain village where people scrape by growing carrots, peppers and onions. He told the AP he met their leader, Laura Silsby of Boise, Idaho, at a school in Port-au-Prince two days earlier.
Silsby said she was looking for homeless children, Adrien said, adding that he went that very day to talk to the parents in Callebas.
In a jailhouse interview Saturday, Silsby told the AP that most of the children had been delivered to the Americans by distant relatives, while some came from orphanages that had collapsed in the quake.
The missionaries' lawyer, Jorge Puello, told the AP on Wednesday "they willingly accepted kids they knew were not orphans because the parents said they would starve otherwise."
The parents of four children taken by Silsby said the Americans took down contact information for all the families and assured them that a relative would be able to visit them in the Dominican Republic.
Silsby's Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, had begun planning last year to build an orphanage, school and church in Magante, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Their plan was to work with U.S. adoption agencies to find "loving Christian parents" for Haitian and Dominican children. When the quake struck, the church members decided to act immediately, renting a hotel in a nearby Dominican beach resort and hiring a bus to collect children from the disaster area.
Adrien said he had no knowledge of the group's larger plans; villagers said they were told none of their children would be offered for adoption.
Laurentius Lelly, a 27-year-old computer technician, said he gave up his two children, ages 4 and 6, because Silsby had previously visited the area and earned people's trust.
Lelly said he is no longer so sure about her trustworthiness, and said he was worried the Haitian judicial system would fail to properly investigate the case. No Haitian police or social welfare investigators have visited the village since the Americans were arrested at the border, the parents said.
"I would like to find out if these people were really going to help the kids or were trying to steal them," Lelly said.
The children, ranging in age from 2 to 12, are now being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince. An official there, Patricia Vargas, said none of the children who were old enough to talk said they were parentless. "Up until now we have not encountered any who say they are an orphan," she said.
A Haitian-born pastor who apparently helped the Baptist group insisted Wednesday the Americans had done nothing wrong.
The Rev. Jean Sainvil told the AP that some of the children were orphans and might have been put up for adoption. Children with parents were to be kept in the Dominican Republic, and would not lose contact with their families, Sainvil said in Atlanta.
"Everybody agreed that they knew where the children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed they would be allowed to see the children and even take them back if need be," he said.
Most parents said they wouldn't know what to do if they had to take the children back.
"I am living in a tent with a friend," said Lelly, who said most of his wife's close relatives were killed. "My main concern is that if the kids come back I'm not going to be able to feed them."
Prime Minister Max Bellerive has suggested the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti's shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
"It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents. And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong," Bellerive told the AP.
The White House has said the case remains in Haitian hands for now.