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