What was supposed to be a group of churches simply serving as the hands and feet of Jesus in Haiti has turned into a legal nightmare garnering worldwide attention.
A team of 10 Baptist volunteers representing churches in Idaho, Texas and Kansas remains imprisoned in Port-au-Prince, arrested by authorities for attempting to move 33 children into the Dominican Republic without proper documentation. Though the group maintains they are innocent, Haitian government officials have used the situation to stress the need for clamping down on child trafficking, particularly following the devastating earthquake. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive even angrily denounced the group as "kidnappers" who "knew what they were doing was wrong."
For those associated with the churches, it's a completely different story.
"I know the hearts of those folks that went to Haiti, and their heart was to help combat the problem of human trafficking," said Drew Ham, assistant pastor of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, where five of the 10 arrested are members. "And so certainly this would never be something that they would be a part of, at least those things that they're charged in doing in. … This is something we've been talking about doing for a long time so it wasn't specific to this earthquake."
At least four churches were involved with nonprofit ministry New Life Children's Refuge's plans to move up to 200 children from Haiti and the Dominican Republic into a beachfront orphanage in the Dominican Republic town of Magante. New Life Children's Refuge founder Laura Silsby, who is one of the 10 being detained, says the organization was in the process of creating a "loving Christian homelike environment" that included a beach-area school, chapel, villas and café.
"We intended to raise those children and be with them their entire lives, if necessary," Silsby said, denying the Haitian authorities' charges that the group was intending to offer the children for adoption. "These kind of children are sold across the border for the price of a chicken. We wanted to give them lives of joy and dignity in God’s love."
Silsby acknowledged, however, that she did not have legal documentation to either prove the children were orphans or that their parents have given permission to remove them from the country. Reporters from various media outlets have also verified Silsby's claim that many of the children's parents willingly signed their children over so they could have a higher standard of living.
Nonetheless, the Haitian government is using the Baptist group as an example of its tightened regulations on adoption, which includes Bellerive requiring his personal approval on every child sent out of the country.
"If people want to help children of Haiti, this is not the way to do it," said a government spokeswoman. "There can be no questions about taking our children off the streets. It is wrong. And those who do so will be judged." [cbsnews.com, 2/2/10; AP, 2/1/10; nytimes.com, 2/1/10]