The Road to Hell, Haiti, and the Baptists

Dawn Davenport


A group of Americans were arrested for their good intentioned, but illegal actions in Haiti.

A group of Americans were arrested for their good intentioned, but illegal actions in Haiti.

When the American group was arrested for trying to bring Haitian children over the border into the Dominican Republic last week, I literally screamed at my television.  Among my shouts were “Are you nuts” and “Think before you act”.  Their actions played right into the “international adoption equal child trafficking” argument that I railed against in last week’s blog.  Everything about this case is confusing, and the more I learn, the more the actions of this group don’t make sense.  What is clear is that their actions were ill informed (read: stupid) and may well have been illegal.  It is equally clear that their actions were not evil.  In no way am I condoning what they did, but I see the excessive media and Haitian focus on this group as a distraction from the real problems of trafficking Haitian children for sex and slavery.  It also smacks of media bias.

According to news reports, Laura Silsby was the energy and “brains” behind this operation.  The others on the team were friends and fellow members of Silsby’s Idaho church and a nearby church.  About two years ago Ms. Silsby founded the New Life Children’s Refuge to “rescue, love, and care for orphaned, abandoned, and impoverished Haitian and Dominican children.”  Apparently, New Life’s goals also included rescuing, loving, and caring for run away teens in Idaho with hopes to build a large dormitory and education complex near her home.  Along with big plans, Ms. Silsby also had big financial problems.  Her business, Personal Shopper, had an outstanding judgment against it in Dec. 2008, which remains unpaid, and in December 2009, her house was foreclosed.

New Life’s plans were to purchase land on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, but it’s not clear if any land had been purchased before the quake.  Ms. Silsby traveled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic twice in 2009 (July and early fall).  Plans were accelerated after the Jan. 12 earthquake, and New Life rented a 45 room hotel on the north Dominican Republic coast.  The group of ten adults and teens left the US on Jan. 21 for the Dominican Republic, and drove a bus to Port-au-Prince to “gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages” to bring back to their rented space in the Dominican Republic.

The minister of their Idaho church has said that before they left for Haiti Silsby was in contact with a Haitian pastor that runs several orphanages.  However, other reports of the group’s first days in Haiti show them traveling to different orphanages in Port-au-Prince offering to take children and being turned down.  At least one orphanage director told them that their plans were illegal.  A journalist also told them the same.

Their search for children to rescue continued and they moved away from the most damaged areas of Port-au-Prince and eventually ended up in a nearby town.  Here the information is sketchy.  The news has consistently reported the following:

  • The group eventually ended up with 33 children ranging in age from 2 months to 13 years.  From the news videos, most of the children appeared to be school aged.
  • At least some of the children were “voluntarily given” to the group by desperately poor parents because they were promised that the children would get an education.
  • A Haitian minister signed something saying that New Life “had permission” to take the children.
  • The ten adults/teens and 33 children were stopped when they tried to cross into the Dominican Republic and were eventually charged with the lesser charge of child abduction, rather than child trafficking.

It’s hard to even begin to list the mistakes Silsby, New Life, and the Idaho churches made.  They didn’t coordinate with local child welfare nongovernmental organizations in Haiti.  They didn’t heed the advice of more experienced voices once there.  Most important and most egregious in my mind, they didn’t educate themselves beforehand on how to set up a child welfare facility/orphanage in a culturally sensitive way that maintains ties between children and their families and communities.  I saw video footage of Silsby the day they were arrested telling the Haitian officials that she didn’t know their “rules”.  Well, duh, if you are trying to set up a child welfare institution in a country, the first thing you have to learn is the law.  The second step is learning about best practices in child welfare.  What has worked well in the past for children and what hasn’t?  Hint: taking children to an institution in a neighboring country is likely not considered “best practice”.  These preliminary steps are not glamorous or sexy or fun or appear as noble as cuddling a child, but they are the necessary.

This group has been accused of child trafficking for adoption, but the facts don’t support this conclusion.  New Life documents state their mission as loving and caring for Haitian and Dominican children, but equipping “each child with a solid education and vocational skills as well as opportunities for adoption into a loving Christian family.”  Adoption was at least a part of their plans.  It is doubtful, however, that adoption was the primary motivation.  The group did not “cherry pick” very young kids in their rescue efforts.  There is no evidence that they obtained documentation at the time they received the children to facilitate later adoptions.  (That, however, may be further evidence of ignorance rather than lack of intent to traffic for adoption.)

Perhaps most striking as a lack of primary intent to traffic for adoption is that they were bringing the kids to the Dominican Republic.  If you were trying to set up an orphanage primarily for adoption, you would certainly not take the children into another country.  Which country’s adoption laws would govern?  Would the children retain Haitian citizenship?  Would the children and staff continually be required to return to Port-au-Prince for paperwork?  Haiti isn’t a Mecca for international adoption in the best of times because the Haitian adoption laws are Byzantine (to mix a metaphor) in their complexity and severely restrictive.  If adoption was anything more than an incidental outcome, these folks were ignorant beyond belief.  Older children, without proper paperwork, living in an orphanage in another country would not be easy to place for adoption.

I am drawn to this story in part because I feel a certain kinship with Silsby and the group.  I understand all to well the desire to take action, any action.  In the last several weeks, I have wished that I had some useful skill that would justify going to Haiti and doing something other than sending money and praying.  As a Christian, I believe in the power of prayer.  As a realist, I believe in the need for money.  But, oh my, it would sure feel more satisfying to be getting my hands dirty.  Unfortunately, I know that my pull to jump in and just do something is essentially a selfish wish.  I don’t have a direct conduit to God any more than anyone else, but I know how easy it is to cloak my desires as a divine mandate.

I am trouble by the glee I sense in some of the media coverage of this incident.  News reports repeatedly referred to them as a Baptist group and the New York Times referred to them in today’s paper just as The Baptists.  Why the focus on their religious affiliation?  I wonder if the media would so label a group of Buddhists, Taoists, or Lutherans?  When speaking of the radical wing of Islam, reporters are careful to call them Islamic extremist or drop the religious reference entirely and call them “terrorist”.  Where you place the “ist” makes a difference.  Baptists are an easy target for religious prejudice by the main stream media.

I’ll have to admit that my perception of media bias may be influenced by defensiveness.  As a person of faith and an adoption advocate, I don’t want to be grouped with these people.  I cringe that others will think they represent most Christian orphan’s ministries or international adoption advocates.  At the risk of indulging my defensiveness, I’d like to point out that much of the on the ground, back breaking, unglamorous work in Haiti is being done by religious groups, of all affiliations, including the Baptists.  By far, the “best” orphanages in Haiti are supported by religious organizations, and much of the work on “best practices” for orphanages is being done by religious groups throughout the world.

Ultimately a picture is developing of a group with good intentions and little thought—a dangerous combination.  Good intent doesn’t excuse their actions. What they did was wrong, and it was disrespectful of Haiti.  It was not, however, evil.  Lumping it with child trafficking for sex or slavery minimizes the horror of child trafficking.

Those who want to help children in Haiti must be a little more cautious because of this incident.  Orphanages are worried about being too active in accepting children and medical groups are afraid to bring children to the US for surgery for fear of being labeled as a trafficker.  This is a political nightmare for US government which is walking the tightrope of leading the relief efforts in a country that is very sensitive to outside intervention.  It demands precious time from already overburdened Haitian officials.  Above all else, it is a distraction from the huge real needs of hundreds of thousands of Haitians that are barely surviving.  For the actions of a few, many will suffer.

Nicole Lankford, 18, one of the jailed group members said, “Our point was to draw attention to the plight of Haitian orphans.  We came here to help, not to become the story.”  Well Nicole, it’s not just the road to Hell that is paved by good intentions.

Image credit: Lance T Osborne

09/02/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 34 Comments

34 Responses to The Road to Hell, Haiti, and the Baptists

  1. Avatar Dawn says:

    Malinda, I agree that taking children illegally for any purpose, including adoption,is child trafficking, but I think there are degrees of “wrongness”, for lack of a better word. Just as our legal system see degrees in all crimes, including murder, there are degrees of child trafficking. By not addressing the degrees, I think we minimize the crime of child trafficking.

    You raise a good point about the group bringing the issue of their religion into the equation by saying they were on a mission from God. I’ll think on that one some.

    If adoption was their main motive for trying to take these kids, then they are truly ignorant of the realities of finding adoptive parents for older children and the realities of international adoption in general. I realize my next objection will mess up your alliterative turn of phrase, and I appreciate alliteration with the best of them, but it appears a more apt description would be Bungling Child Snatchers.

  2. Avatar marriage now says:

    Awesome post, thanks for sharing.

  3. They may be human beings like YOU but they arent like ME. Sorry but its true. As long as they dont try to insist on making a thing openly about their gayness we can get along particularly since I dont make a thing about being straight.

  4. Avatar Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    Okay, so I commented. I have totally done an about face about this story – whatever 'benefit of the doubt' I was trying to offer in seeking out both sides of the story, it's done now. It seems as if even her denomination is distancing themselves. I'm sickened . . .

  5. Thanks so much for the suggestions. Now if I could only find the time.

  6. Thanks so much for the suggestions. Now if I could only find the time.

  7. To start with I would go to these sites and comment in the blog section with a link back to your article. If you get enough links back if anyone searches Haiti adoption your article will come up. I do this regularly and it really drives relevant traffic to an idea.That would be my immediate choice in the short run.In the long run I'd contact these outlets and tell them about your interest in writing an article as an expert. Pitch the idea. It's a hot topic right now. They may want to interview you….instead of taking your entire article.

  8. I tried submitting last week's blog on UNICEF and International adoption to Salon, but heard nothing. Anyone have any contacts at Salon, the Huffington Post, or the NYTimes?

  9. I agree completely Dawn. It boils down to ultimately respecting the culture and the law, even in times of social distress. Good intentions paving the way to hell and everything with that. I believe they meant good but no good can come out of the example. Their actions, if sanctified, pave the way for child trafficking for all the reasons we don't want. Hague Convention!Yes, I think this article could easily be submitted to any reputable outlet. NYTimes? Seriously. Well written.

  10. Exactly! And thank goodness, so far at least, that is how most Christian groups are treating it rather than a cause celeb.

  11. Avatar Lucinda Naia says:

    My mom is a conservative evangelical Christian who supports Southern Baptist Convention activities. Even she believes this group was not acting appropriately. It's not about religion; it's about respecting and obeying a country's laws.

  12. I feel for the other members of the group, but I am so glad that other Christian groups haven't rallied around or tried to make this about persecuting Christians.

  13. Lucinda, I have thought the same thing about the parents of the young people that accompanied Silsby to Haiti. I wonder if they are kicking themselvesfor having not done their proper research or if they are railing at the injustice of "the system". Or maybe both. As a parent of teens, I know thatI trust that the church has done the proper research before I send my kidswith them, but this case has made me question how much research I should be doing. I feel for the other 9 people who are on the "team".

  14. Avatar Lucinda Naia says:

    Dawn – well written blog! I'd like to suggest you submit it to national papers and/or magazines as an op/ed piece. From the beginning I did not trust what Laura Silsby was saying. I think it is quite possble the people with her thought they had the appropriate paperwork. When people who are not used to being in a foreign country put their trust in a group leader, it is vitally important to be sure that person is worthy of their trust and following the laws of the country. It does not seem that Silsby deserved their trust. Yes, they are facing difficult consequences, and I hope their faith sustains them.

  15. So sympathy for the leader lady. The others look like they may have gotten lied too and are in this mess on accident.

  16. Okay, so I commented. I have totally done an about face about this story – whatever 'benefit of the doubt' I was trying to offer in seeking out both sides of the story, it's done now. It seems as if even her denomination is distancing themselves. I'm sickened . . .

  17. someone with the ability to cry with out tears….that seriously creeps me out when people do that.

  18. What a depressing movie that would be. Humm, who would play her?

  19. Will do – but if a movie is ever made about this situation I think you have come up with the PERFECT title.

  20. Kathleen, please add your comment to the blog as well. Most commenters are agreeing with you.

  21. Unfortunately, I do think Laura Silsby intentionally was involved with child trafficking. She has been caught in multiple lies with regard to these children many of whom did not lose one or any parents in the earthquake and were not orphans at all. Sadly I think others in the group followed the good intentions path to hell.

  22. Thank you for sharing the legal insight and current situation behind child adoption in Haiti. WBOCI is one organization that truly steps in for orphan care, rescuing and restoring them in a loving environment. To know more about our operations is Haiti, please visit

  23. Avatar Noel says:

    I think there are some great points above. Couple quick things I would like to add – as my son naps on me while I write this, I am blessed that he was able to come home because of this diaster. However, 5 children still remain – one being an adoptive parent I am close with, we were on the last parent trip together. People who come along and do these wrong and ridiculous actions are hurting the chances for those of us who were following the rules. Christopher almost did not get to come home – our agency was not able to get the children out immediately and were trying to play by the rules – our paperwork was dropped off at the Embassy for processing on Friday and they were told to return Monday for the completed travel documents. Over the weekend, the Prime Minister took back his previous approval for those in process of adoption to leave and wanted to sign all documents of children leaving – anyone who knows anything about Haiti knows that is going to take forever! My son did finally make it home – just over a week ago but there are still those trying to get their children home. These actions to “save the children” hurt the parents waiting to bring their children home and hinder the future of these children, who especially after the diaster they have experienced, need that extra love, nutrition, and safety.
    Additionally, I want to address the word “orphan”. Christopher’s mother was 16 when she had him. She tried to take care of him. But after 8 months, she decided she wanted to stay in school and could no longer care for him – his only other known relative, his grandmother, is the one who dropped him at the orphanage. His father is unknown. This is no different than what happens in the US – young children deciding to give their children up so both parent and child can have a future. Unfortunately, now, I don’t know if that is possible for her as I do not know if she survived the earthquake. But the point is, just because he has(d) a living parent, does not mean he was not an orphan. His mother gave him the greatest gift when she decided she could no longer properly care for him. I would also like to note that our orphanage also has a non-profit that helps those living in Haiti to feed and educate their children. But it can’t help everyone. Another couple are adopting two siblings that were dropped off by their mother because they were literally starving to death and she could not afford to feed them. These are absoluletly sad circumstances. And yes, we should find a way to support them to maintain their families, but right now in Haiti, that is not a reality. Christopher also has a large burn mark on his calf. I still do not know where it came from or how he got it, but I sometimes wonder if his grandmother dropped him off at the orphanage for his own safety. There is no welfare system in Haiti to check on allegations of abuse. These are the realities one has to think about with international adoption. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica. One woman wanted me to bring her child back with me when I left. I saw how he lived, what his future was, my efforts in Jamaica could not change that. Had my circumstances been different, I may have brought him – unfortunately, I had to leave my service as my mother was dying of cancer. Sorry to ramble on, but I feel the use of the term orphan is often misplaced and just wanted to share my thoughts on the matter.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Noel, I’m glad your son is sleeping safely at home now. I agree that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the word “orphan”. It is legally defined word, and the legal definition is not the same as the common usage definition, which always spells trouble for general understanding. “Orphan” does not mean no living parents. Pafents the world over can either relinquish or abandon their children. The absence of someone to raise a child makes the child an “orphan”.

  24. Avatar Paula says:

    Thank you!
    I too was SHOUTING at the tv, and every time i hear about it i shout. I am a Christian and a lot of people i know aren’t and they say, look at what Christains are doing ect…
    it drives me mental.
    i will be shouting about this for some time i feel and praying about it.

  25. Thoroughly agree with all of your points, Dawn. And in processing and re-reading the links and the information that’s come out since the start, I find myself nodding and agreeing with even the snarkiest, most critical commentaries as well. I’ve come far in my initial reactions to this story!

    The more that comes out about this woman (Silsby) and the whole sordid background of her life and her plan to “rescue” these children (or any children she could come upon!), the more disgusted I am by her and her actions. It is becoming increasingly apparent that her whole life is out of order, in the worst possible ways. From that terrible starting point, she acted with no plan, no preparation, and worst of all, an extreme arrogance that smacks of the worst kind of rogue. And now she wants someone to have mercy on her and her cohorts.

    Her posturing of the “Christian relief effort” is the worst sort of manipulation. Whatever benefit of the doubt I may have been attempting to extend when the stories first broke, I no longer feel any compunction to do so. I’ve been trying to figure out what about this whole story rankles the most and honestly, I can’t even list just one or two things.

    I am angry and broken-hearted for those who trusted her, both on her team and the parents or guardians who relinquished their children. And for the children.

    THE CHILDREN! My heart aches for those children. Can you imagine what child-like dreams they might have finally allowed themselves to start to dream of? The coming relief from the horrors that they might have started to entertain in their minds? I mean, to some of these kids, clean blue swimming pools and comfy soft hotel beds likely felt like paradise after this month’s events. What comforts and promises the team would have had to offer to “help” the children be less torn about the separation from their families or parents – to have all of it dashed because one woman started with a mission that was ill-conceived, poorly executed and completely illegal.

    Because at the heart of it all, it is about the children. And these poor kids suffered the worst possible kind of manipulation. It sickens me.

  26. Avatar Kathleen says:

    Unfortunately, I do think Laura Silsby intentionally was involved with child trafficking. She has been caught in multiple lies with regard to these children many of whom did not lose one or any parents in the earthquake and were not orphans at all. Sadly I think others in the group followed the good intentions path to hell. There is no degree of wrongness – these children had parents, who believed they were going to a boarding school with a swimming pool where they would be permitted to visit. Silby was informed prior to her scooping up these children that she did not have the proper paperwork. Building villas just proves that she intended to go into the adoption business….are this was her starter inventory.

  27. Avatar Ingrid says:

    Dawn and readers –

    There is an excellent column by Eugene Robinson in today’s Washington Post about this subject:

    Thanks for the work you do.

  28. Avatar Gina says:

    Like Malinda, I totally agree with you on much of your post, but am also skeptical that the group’s (or at least Silsby’s) motives were innocent and that their errors were those of stupidity and ignorance, rather than venality.

    You point out that if they wanted to offer the particular children they’d taken from their families for adoption, they would have been foolish to take them to the Dominican Republic because of legal complications, such as whose laws would govern. But that pretty much goes right along with all the other laws Silsby ignored in snatching up the children in the first place. How many people told her what she was doing was illegal? We’ve heard that there have been several. She did it anyway, probably figuring on a “Christian angel of mercy” image to protect her. So who’s to say that she didn’t figure that she’d just get around the citizenship issue in the DR as well?

    As you’ve said, if you are taking children from a family that loves them with promises of caring for them, wouldn’t you want to keep them as close to home as you could so that their family could visit?If she truly wanted to help these children, she would have either brought resources to their families to help them care for them, or tried to set up a refuge for them *in Haiti*. Why try to take children out of existing orphanages and build a new one that doesn’t even exist yet in another country? Why not try to help rebuild the orphanages that were already in place to take care of them?

    Taking children to the DR–especially with plans for a “beach resort for adoptive parents to stay while they await the in-country requirement” screams of child trafficking. It suggests that she wanted to get these kids as far away from their parents and families as she could.

    I don’t know about the rest of the group, but everything I’ve read about Silsby just screams sleaze to me. And now there’s this morning’s NYT story about necessary medical airlifts of injured children from Haiti being held up because of concerns about child trafficking in the wake of this case. This misadventure has not only put a black eye on international adoption, but it may actually cost children their lives.

  29. Avatar Molly says:

    Just to chime in here, the Baptist churches involved in this all had press conferences, other Baptist organizations are petitioning the Department of State and President Obama to intervene. Yet other Baptist are quickly trying to defend the denomination and denying involvement. The word Baptist is in the headlines because people involved in this put it there.

    CNN just reported that this incident was not the group’s first. They were stopped with another busload of children days before their arrest. Bus unloaded, volunteers warned and sent on their way. The police officer is now a witness.

    Gina makes several good points about the reluctance to transport children with severe medical needs. It was also revealed that a Catholic group rented them the hotel rooms.

    I absolutely agree that the first step to starting an orphanage is to have the right staff and a well-thought out plan. A internet retailer and her nanny lack the qualifications to really serve the needs of Haitian children.

    Despite claims of consent by the parents, it still has not been determined if the adults were indeed parents of these particular children. Any consent given by adults in charge of these children was based on a false claim in a flyer, written in English, not their native language. There was no firm plan in place to educate and house these children. Fear certainly motivated the alleged consent by the adults since there were few alternatives in the face of a natural disaster. Usually, fraud and duress are two good ways to nullify an adoption consent.

    None of the usual adoption documents like birth certificates, death certificates to establish orphan status or passports were obtained. All she presented was a business card of the DR Consul. And a flyer with pictures of swimming pools. Her business plan was vague.

  30. Avatar malinda says:

    Dawn, I agree with much of what you’ve written, but there are a few points where we differ.

    First, I think taking children illegally for the purpose of adoption is child trafficking. It may be that we see it as a lesser form of child trafficking when comparing it to trafficking for purposes of the sex trade or slavery, but none of the legal standards, international conventions, etc., distinguish among the reasons children are trafficked. We seem to think that when children make their way into loving adoptive homes that the stink of trafficking disappears. But, of course, we never see the children who never make it into a loving home, we never hear about what happens in those adoptive homes that are not so loving, etc.

    Second, we can have different interpretations of the facts as to whether this group intended for the children to be adopted out. But their promises of building villas for adoptive parents to stay in while finalizing the adoptions in DR makes it seem that adoption was not just an incidental purpose.

    Third, as to the media attention to the fact that they are Christians or Baptists, THIS GROUP made it relevant. They, not the media, told everyone they were on a mission from God. They made their faith part of the story, not the media. Can’t blame the media for running with it, when the Bungling Baptist Baby-Snatchers (as I call them!) put their faith in the center of the story. But I will grant one point — I’d be happy to call them Baptist extremists from now on!

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