American citizens pose for a photo at police headquarters in the international airport of Port-au-Prince, on Saturday, January 30, 2010. [Agencies]
PORT-AU-PRINCE: Ten Americans were detained by Haitian police on Saturday as they tried to bus 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic, allegedly without proper documents.
The Baptist church members from Idaho called it a "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission," meant to save abandoned children from the chaos following Haiti's earthquake. Their plan was to scoop up 100 kids and take them by bus to a rented hotel at a beach resort in the Dominican Republic, where they planned to establish an orphanage.
Whether they realized it or not, these Americans, the first known to be taken into custody since the January 12 earthquake, 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.
"In this chaos the government is in right now we were just trying to do the right thing," the group's leader, 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.
Silsby said they only had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children. She said her group obtained them through a well-known Haitian pastor named 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.
Social Affairs Minister Yves Cristallin told reporters 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. Advocates both here and abroad caution that with so many people unaccounted for, adoptions should not go forward until it can be determined that the children have no relatives who can raise them.
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.
A boy walks past after receiving food from a Haitian foundation in downtown Port-au-Prince on January 29, 2010. [Agencies]
The US Embassy in Haiti sent consular officials, who met with the detained Americans and gave them bug spray and MREs to eat, 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 Associated Press.
"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."