By Tim Padgett and Jessica Desvarieux / Port-au-Prince
The 10 U.S. missionaries who were arrested in Haiti last month for allegedly abducting children no doubt consider themselves Christian martyrs. When a TIME reporter visited the Idaho Baptists recently in their squalid, rusted jail cells in Port-au-Prince and asked about their predicament, their unsurprising Biblical response was, “The Philistines won, the Philistines won.”
On Wednesday, however, a Haitian judge released eight of the missionaries, who, according to their lawyers, had already left the country by sunset. Two others — the group’s leader, Laura Silsby, and her nanny and assistant, Charisa Coulter — remained behind bars for further investigation, but they may eventually be freed as well. Either way, the question now is whether their high-profile detention has put the fear of God into others who might think it’s okay to take Haitian kids without lawful process — even if the intent is to give them refuge and more hopeful lives after a disaster as horrific as Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake. (See TIME’s comprehensive coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath.)
Marie de la Soudiere wants to make sure folks like the missionaries don’t get many more chances to even try it. As coordinator of the separated children program in Haiti for UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, Soudiere recently initiated a campaign to register Haitian youths, who were among the world’s most vulnerable to trafficking even before the quake. The registry will be much like the one crafted in the wake of the tsunami that devastated South Asia in 2004, but its purpose is more far-reaching than reuniting lost kids with relatives. The Haiti list, begun about two weeks ago, is also designed to prevent children from being dumped into the country’s scores of loosely monitored orphanages, many of which have long been sources of child trafficking. “Our answer,” says Soudiere, “is ‘no’ to orphanages.”
That’s understandable thinking in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, where children are frequently given up by their destitute parents. Those kids all too often funneled to more affluent families who turn them into slaves, known in Creole as restaveks, or to outright traffickers who force them into lives of prostitution in Haiti and abroad. The Haitian government estimates there are about 300,000 restaveks in Haiti today. In many cases before and after the quake, parents and orphanages have also delivered their kids to well-meaning but naïve foreigners like the Idaho missionaries, who were collared on Jan. 29 for trying to ferry 33 poor Haitian children in a bus, without proper documents, into the Dominican Republic for eventual adoption in the U.S. (See children’s messages of hope to Haiti.)
The missionaries, who insisted they were doing humanitarian work, were formally charged with kidnapping earlier this month. But lawyers for the eight released on Wednesday say they’re confident now that those charges will be dropped. (They were freed without bond and are only required to return to Haiti if asked to do so by the judge in order to answer further questions.) The missionaries’ Dominican legal adviser, Jorge Puello, is wanted in both the U.S. and El Salvador on human smuggling charges. (He denies the accusations.) In an interview with TIME, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive did not criticize the judge’s decision, but said the case has at least reminded the world that “we had a disaster here but we still have laws. We won’t accept people trying to take advantage of this disaster to traffic children.”
Many — if not most — of those 33 children, it turns out, aren’t even orphans; they were given to Silsby’s group by desperate parents, either directly or via orphanages. Soudiere, a French citizen and veteran child advocate in disaster and war zones, believes the Haitian children’s registry will make people like orphanage directors and clueless missionaries “think twice” before unlawfully scooping up lost or abandoned kids. “It gives these children a legal identity they didn’t have before,” she says. “In the end, I also think it will strengthen Haitian family culture, because Haitians have been encouraged for too long to believe that they can’t take care of their own children.”
The January earthquake, which the Haitian government says killed more than 200,000 people, left thousands of children orphaned or separated from their families. But UNICEF and its partner NGOs in the registry effort, including Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services and Relief International, insist it’s better for aid workers to help identify and make the effort to locate those kids’ relatives — and place them in temporary foster-style care with network-monitored and supported families in the meantime — than it is to hand them over to orphanages. The vast majority of the children, they say, have an immediate or extended family member out there who is willing to take the child in if contacted.
That was the case, for example, with a 6-year-old Haitian boy named Kenzie, who lost his parents in the earthquake. The leg injury he sustained himself got bad enough that he was sent to the U.S. naval hospital ship Comfort for emergency treatment. Doctors might have been inclined to then send Kenzie to an orphanage — until a volunteer Haitian nurse on board, who was in contact with the Unicef project, did some detective work and found the boy’s relatives, who have since taken him in. “They thought he was dead [until] I pointed to the big boat in the sea,” says Philistin, the nurse.
This week, Relief International doctors at a field clinic in a hard-hit suburb of the capital encountered a woman who only a few days before had found an infant abandoned in an open-air latrine. The NGO contacted UNICEF, which is registering the baby and conducting a search through various media, such as radio, for her family. What’s more, even though the woman who found her is poor herself, she’s been allowed to care for the infant under the UNICEF network’s supervision — largely because experts like Soudiere says it’s often a better option to keep children in their own communities instead of giving them to wealthier families who might make them restaveks.
So far the nascent UNICEF campaign has only registered about 130 Haitian children, but thousands are expected to be in the agency’s database before year’s end. Not everyone backs the no-to-orphanages philosophy, of course. Referring to the Idaho missionaries, another U.S. Christian missionary who helps run an orphanage in northern Haiti told TIME this week, “You can’t let a few misguided people like them cast a shadow over the genuinely good work others are doing with Haitian children.”
That’s true; but the UNICEF registry, if it can really reach out to an appreciable number of Haitian kids, could at least show Haitians an alternative to their troubling tradition of discarding children in the face of poverty and all the country’s other hardships. Meanwhile, the project may want to add the 33 children the Idaho Baptists had tried to carry away. As the case gets resolved, they’re being housed in a Haitian orphanage — which to child advocates like Soudiere is the real Philistine victory.
Just what Haiti needs!
Another bunch of naïve, well-meaning idiots.
The concept of a registry is not realistic, when faced with the tens of thousands of children involved and the logistic requirements for such a concept. This reminds me of the USAID plan to distribute computers until some spoil-sport asked where these would be plugged in?
The UNICEF people will, of course, ignore the acts of some earlier UNICEF staffers in Haiti and Belgium who were eventually jailed for child pornography. And then there were the accusations against UNICEF personnel who were allegedly involved in the transport of children to Europe where organs were harvested. Much easier to ship a heart in a live, breathing body, via a simple seat on an airline than to attempt a complex transfer in a bucket of ice, that could melt en route.
Somehow restavek has become a dirty word among journalists, international workers and other enthusiastic “two-week experts” on Haiti and its culture. Of course, there are many cases in which a restavek is mistreated by the family that takes him/her in. On the balance, there are many, many cases in which the child benefits from the absorption into another family and proceeds upward to things he/she could never have achieved within their original family unit. I am guilty of taking kids in on a basis that could be described as restavekism. They have been enrolled in school. In return they have been expected to do some household chores, actually fewer than expected of me by my parents.
To speak out against the process is similar to the situation in which a bunch of American do-gooders attacked the Haitian assembly industry for paying sweatshop wages. In one case they got the National League players to support the boycott against the Haitian makers of baseballs. They said they would not play with balls made through the expenditure of Haitian sweat. So the factory closed, putting 300 Haitians out of work. Each supported about 10 family members, so 3000 Haitians were left hungry.
The baseball production went to Costa Rica where the balls are made with the sweat of Costa Ricans.
No one has complained.
People are still attacking Disney, The Gap, and others for exploiting Haitian workers. Their efforts will see many more Haitians starve when economics drive the jobs to other nations.
What the foreigner does not realize, or appreciate is the fact that the Haitian economy is not that of the United States. There is no comparison between the wage scales of even the highest paid workers. There was a recent move to increase the minimum wage (without any balance with regard to the economy) to a point where a housemaid would earn the same wage paid to a bank teller. Needless to say, this created frictions. The increase saw service stations reduce operations to one shift, instead of two. Many lost their jobs.
Before meddling, people should understand the facts.
Back to the thousands of children without families. This outsiders with UNICEF have managed to register 130 children. My God!! I was in an emergency facility yesterday that has 489 kids without any family, and they are just a drop in the bucket.
Some nurse – bless her heart – managed to track down a 6 year old’s family. Just think of the man hours required to track down the relatives of 1000, 10,000….100,000 kids!!
A baby was abandoned in a latrine. This should tell you something, unless you are a complete dummy.
The mother did not want the child!!!
What is the use of trying to track family in a land where this is really impossible…and to what purpose??
Child trafficking is not the real problem.
The inability of this nation to supply schools, jobs, housing and medical care are the real problems. Solve these and you don’t have to worry about restaveks, or child-trafficking. The Haitians are very family oriented and only let their children go – as restaveks – in the hope that they will find a better life.
The media looks for subjects that gab a viewers attention. This time it was CNN and child-trafficking. Next month it could be the migratory habits of the white-tailed deer. Had it not been for the frenzied media attention, the 10 missionaries would have had their problem solved without frenzy. Because of Haiti’s fear of international attention – the entire adoption process has stopped. This – effectively – blocks the chance of many tiny Haitian children to enter into a new society that would give them unlimited opportunities.
Perhaps, one could become governor of California.
Those now prevented from finding a new life might eventually believe they should have been abandoned in a latrine, rather than be forced to live in one for the rest of their lives.