Charity Gone Wrong: Missionaries Under Fire For Taking Haitian ChildrenS

Ten Americans have been jailed for trying to illegally take 33 Haitian children out of the country — some of whom had parents. Their actions are an example of the worst kind of international aid.

The story has been developing since last week, with more details coming to light early this morning. According to Moni Basu of CNN, the Baptist missionaries from New Life Children's Refuge in Idaho arrived in Haiti last week, collected 20 children from the town of Calebasse and 13 others, and attempted to take them across the border into the Dominican Republic without documentation from the Haitian government. They were arrested Friday and are being held in Port-au-Prince. Clint Henry, pastor of a church many of the missionaries attended, says, "The intention was simply to go down and try to be an aid in ministering to children that had been orphaned in the quake. It was our intention to be part of a new orphanage. The decision was made that we could house those children in the temporary sites." And Laura Silsby (pictured), one of the arrested Americans, says, "We believe we've been charged very falsely with trafficking, which is the furthest possible extreme. We literally gave up everything and used up our own income to help these children and by no means (are we) part of that horrendous practice."

A hearing is scheduled for the missionaries this morning, and they may be extradited to the US for trial. In the meantime, the Today show was surprisingly sympathetic to their plight, speaking of their "frustration:"

The Wall Street Journal, however, found evidence that Silsby and her group willfully ignored the law. Human-rights activist Anne-Christine d'Adesky said Silsby told her she had permission to take the children from "an unnamed Dominican official." D'Adesky recalls, "I informed her that this would be regarded as illegal even with some 'Dominican' minister authorizing, since the children are Haitian" — but Silsby was undeterred, replying, "We have been sent by the Lord to rescue these children, and if it's in the Lord's plan we will be successful."

It's not clear that the children needed "rescuing." While some did come from orphanages, others were taken from their parents. According to CNN, Lely Laurentus gave his young daughters to Silsby because his home had been destroyed in the quake and Silsby offered them "schooling, soccer fields and even a swimming pool." She also claimed to have government permission to take them. Of his girls, Laurentus said, "I can't stand that they were suffering here. I had confidence in the Americans. I trusted them."

This trust appears to have been misplaced. At best, Silsby and her fellow missionaries committed a serious error in judgment. Most sources seem to think that the missionaries did want to help the children, but the BBC points out that Haiti's history of human trafficking has naturally raised suspicions. Silsby's conviction that she and her group were God's agents in Haiti, and that they could ignore not only Haitian law but the families of Haitian children, speaks to the kind of imperialism that has lately given international adoption a bad name. Writing in the New York Times, adoption expert David Smolin says,

All too often, intercountry adoption advocates suggest a choice between a child being adopted, or nothing being done. In the midst of the huge relief effort for Haiti, this is a false dilemma. The people of Haiti need our help; taking their children is not the right response to their time of crisis.

The American missionaries seem to have assumed that they knew how to care for Haitian children better than the Haitian government or even their own families. And while, as Smolin says, the people of Haiti do need our help, that help shouldn't come in the form of lies and law-breaking. Silsby and her group have illustrated the worst possible model of international aid, in which rather than listening to what suffering people need, outsiders make decisions for them.

Perhaps the saddest element of the whole episode is the fact that as of this morning, the 33 children are being held at an SOS Children's Villages facility in Port-au-Prince while the investigation continues. CNN's Basu writes that they aren't allowed to see their families "for fear of raising the children's expectations," and "many of them did not think they would ever see their parents again."

For Haitian Parents, Giving Kids To U.S. Group Backfires Painfully [CNN]
Haiti's Children And The Adoption Question [NYT]
Haiti Allows Adoptions, Queries Missionaries [Wall Street Journal]
Protecting Haiti's Children From 'Cowboy Adoptions'
[BBC]
US Missionaries 'Knew They Were Doing Wrong' In Haiti [BBC]
Haiti Says Baptists May Be Tried In US [AP, via NYT]