PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Ten American Baptists were being held in the Haitian capital Sunday after trying take 33 children out of Haiti at a time of growing fears over possible child trafficking.
The church members, most from Idaho, said they were trying to rescue abandoned and traumatized children. But officials said they lacked the proper documents when they were arrested Friday night in a bus along with children from 2 months to 12 years old who had survived the catastrophic earthquake.
The group said its "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" was an effort to help abandoned children by taking them to an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic.
"In this chaos the government is in right now we were just trying to do the right thing," the group's spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, told The Associated Press at the judicial police headquarters in the capital, where the Americans were being held pending a Monday hearing before a judge. The children, meanwhile, were being cared for at an orphanage.
The group planned to scoop up 100 kids and take them by bus to a 45-room hotel at Cabarete, a beach resort in the Dominican Republic, that they were converting into an orphanage, Silsby told the AP.
Whether they realized it or not, these Americans — the first known to be taken into custody since the Jan. 12 quake — put themselves in the middle of a firestorm in Haiti, where government leaders have suspended adoptions amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to child trafficking.
The quake apparently orphaned many children and left others separated from parents, adding to the difficulty of helping children in need while preventing exploitation of them.
While many legitimate adoption agencies and orphanages operate in Haiti, often run by religious groups, the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration reported in 2007 that bogus adoption agencies in Haiti were offering children to rich Haitians and foreigners in return for processing fees reaching US$10,000.
The agency said some Haitian parents were giving their children to traffickers in return for promises of financial help.
Silsby said the group, including members from Texas and Kansas, only had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children, whom she said they obtained from Haitian pastor Jean Sanbil of the Sharing Jesus Ministries.
Silsby, 40, of Boise, Idaho, was asked if she didn't consider it naive to cross the border without adoption papers at a time when Haitians are so concerned about child trafficking. "By no means are we any part of that. That's exactly what we are trying to combat," she said.
She said she hadn't been following news reports while in Haiti.
Social Affairs Minister Yves Cristallin told the AP that the Americans were suspected of taking part in an illegal adoption scheme.
Cristallin said the 33 children were lodged late Saturday at an SOS Children's Village outside of Port-au-Prince. SOS Children's Villages is a global nonprofit based in Austria.
Many children in Haitian orphanages aren't actually orphans but have been abandoned by family who cannot afford to care for them.
Children's rights groups have urged a halt to adoptions until it can be determined that the children have no relatives who can raise them.
The government now requires Prime Minister Max Bellerive to personally authorize the departure of any child as a way to prevent child trafficking.
UNICEF and other NGOs have been registering children who may have been separated from their parents. Relief workers are locating children at camps housing the homeless around the capital and are placing them in temporary shelters while they try to locate their parents or a more permanent home.
U.S. diplomats met with the detained Americans and gave them bug spray and field rations, according to Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and 18-year-old daughter were being held.
"They have to go in front of a judge on Monday," Lankford told the AP.
"There are allegations of child trafficking and that really couldn't be farther from the truth," he added. The children "were going to get the medical attention they needed. They were going to get the clothes and the food and the love they need to be healthy and to start recovering from the tragedy that just happened."
Silsby said they had documents from the Dominican government, but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities before taking the children to the border.
She said the children were brought to the Haitian pastor by distant relatives and only those with no close family would be put up for adoption.
The 10 Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Friends and relatives have been in touch with them through text messages and phone calls, Lankford said.
The group had described its plans on a Web site where it asked for tax-deductible contributions to help it "gather" 100 orphans and bus them to Cabarete before building a more permanent orphanage in the Dominican town of Magante.
"Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon our hearts the need to go now versus waiting until the permanent facility is built," the group wrote.