Americans arrested for bringing Haitian children across Dominican border

Officials in Haiti say they are talking with U.S. diplomats about whether 10 American Baptists arrested trying to take children out of the country should be sent to the United States for prosecution, the Canadian Broadcasting Centre reported last night. Haiti’s communications minister said the Americans might have to face justice in the United States because Haiti’s court system has been crippled, and courthouses destroyed, by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The Baptists are accused of taking 33 children out of the country without permission or documentation. They were arrested Friday night trying to cross the border into the Dominican Republic in a bus and taken to judicial police headquarters in Port-au-Prince. Members of the non-profit New Life Children’s Refuge, most from Idaho, insist they were “just trying to do the right thing” by rescuing abandoned and traumatized children, said the group’s spokeswoman, Laura Silsby. Silsby, 40, said she hadn’t been following news reports while in Haiti, and didn’t think she needed Haitian permission to take them out of the country. She said her group had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children, who she said were brought to a Haitian pastor, whom she would not identify, by distant relatives. Silsby admitted she had not obtained the proper Haitian documents for the children, whose names were written on pink tape on their shirts.

But Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said Sunday he was outraged by the group’s “illegal trafficking of children” in a country long afflicted by foreign meddling. Haiti’s overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the quake amid fears that orphaned or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Without proper documents and concerted efforts to track down their parents, they could be forever separated from family members able and willing to care for them. Bellerive’s personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child. “The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse, but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake,” said Deb Barry, of Save the Children, which wants a moratorium on new adoptions. “The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labelled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high.”

The children involved with the Baptist group were aged two months to 12 years old. They were taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children’s Villages, where spokesman George Willeit said they arrived “very hungry, very thirsty.” A two- to three-month old baby was dehydrated and had to be hospitalized, he said. An orphanage worker held and caressed another, older baby, who was feverish and looked disoriented. “One girl was crying, and saying, ‘I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.’ And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that,” Willeit said.

Willeit also said some of the children are not orphans but have living parents, who were reportedly told that the children were going on an extended holiday from the post-quake misery. The orphanage was working to reunite the children with their families, joining an effort organized by the Haitian government, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other NGOs.

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