Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A strange story: Idaho Baptists kidnapping Haitian children

Kidnappers? Human traffickers? Well-intentioned fools? Some of the Americans held in the Haiti child-kidnapping case

I know appearances can be deceiving and all. But when I look at the pictures of these folks from busted in the Haiti kidnapping case, the first thought that comes to my mind is definitely not, "Gee, these look like bleeding-heart Christian missionaries who were inspired to go to a dirt-poor underdeveloped country and care for black orphan children."

That story about the Southern Baptists from Idaho who got busted allegedly taking kids from Haiti illegally bears following. It may wind up shining a bit of light into one of the many dark corners of the Christian Right.

BBC News has a background story on the group responsible, Profile: New Life Children's Refuge 02/01/10. I thought the story sounded weird from the beginning. Why would a group of Baptists from Idaho come down and scoop up lost kids in Haiti and try to take them out of the country without proper authorization?


The BBC reports, this part apparently based on the group's official claims:

New Life Children's Refuge (NLCR) is the brainchild of Laura Silsby, 40, and Charisa Coulter, 23, who are both members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho.

The charity, which Ms Silsby incorporated in Idaho in November last year, says it is "dedicated to rescuing, loving and caring for orphaned, abandoned and impoverished Haitian and Dominican children, demonstrating God's love and helping each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ".

Before the earthquake devastated Haiti, NLCR had planned to buy land and build an orphanage, school and church in Magante on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.
The profile discretely raises a flag of suspicion, noting that the people arrested came from two Idaho churches: "The two churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination which has extensive humanitarian programmes around the world."

Yes, it does. And there are lots of other organizations like the well-established and respected Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages charity and the Red Cross, who have actual experience in extreme crisis situations like this. The Haitian children that were taken from the New Life Children's Refuge group were put into the care of SOS Children's Villages. (This is grotesque; the New York Times Web version of this article, Case Stokes Haiti’s Fear for Children, and Itself 02/01/10, misidentifies the group as "SS Children’s Villages" as of this writing; SS Children's Villages?!?

At there very minimum the members of this Idaho group were amazingly lacking in responsibility. The most benign interpretation I can think to put on it would be this group had just started a project to set up an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, and they saw this emergency as a way to jump-start the project and maybe get raise some bucks through grants and donations. So they went down not really knowing what they were doing, snatched a bunch of kids off the street at least some of whom have parents or other living relatives, and tried to cart them out of the country.

But I find even that hard to believe. Because not only does the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have missionary and charity organizations, but there are others coming from a more-or-less Christian fundamentalist perspective that do, as well. So why would a group of white people from Idaho want to start up a project like this? Did any of them have any real experience in Christian missions, working with orphans or international charities? The BBC profiles lists Carla Thompson, one of the Idahoans arrested, as "missions coordinator at the Central Valley Baptist Church". Which probably means she was in charge of putting together a special presentation once a year in support of the annual drive for mission contributions. Not exactly training for assisting orphans in a catastrophic earthquake situation.

The whole thing sounds like some sort of scam to me. Although they were apparently very serious about taking kids out of Haiti for some purpose.

I'll bet scriptwriters for Law and Order are already working on a episode based on this case.

This article, Baptist group denies trafficking in Haitian kids MSNBC 02/01/10, quotes an official from the SOS Children's Village as basically convinced that the group was indulging in human trafficking, aka, slavery:

"As far as we know they would have been, I say it clearly, sold for $10,000 each," said Georg Willeit, who runs the SOS Children's Village outside Port-au-Prince. "That's what one of the policemen told us. Every child was very desperate, hungry, thirsty. They all were in a bad condition."

"One of the elder girls told us, 'I'm not an orphan. I still have my parents,'" he added. "She thought she was going on a summer holiday vacation given by friendly people from America and the Dominican Republic."
The MSNBC piece identifies the group as the "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" instead of "New Life Children's Refuge." This El País article also uses the New Life Children's Refuge name (in Spanish): Los falsos huérfanos de Haití von Francisco Peregil 02.02.2010.

The Idaho Statesman has video of the Clint Henry, pastor of the Central Valley Baptist Church, reading a statement to the press, apparently on Monday. Even taking into consideration that this is probably the first time Brother Henry has found his church in the center of a serious international controversy, the statement is surprisingly empty. He didn't even bother to vouch for the good will of his church members or their dedication to the Lord or whatever. The News Update on the church's Web page as of this writing is only slightly more generous:

A ten member church team traveled to Haiti to help rescue children from one or more orphanages that had been devastated in the earthquake on January 12. The children were being taken to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic where they could be cared for and have their medical and emotional needs attended to. Our team was falsely arrested today and we are doing everything we can from this end to clear up the misunderstanding that has occurred in Port au Prince.
Henry gave an interview to CBS News in which he at least vouched for their good intentions.

The Christian Science Monitor also has coverage: Haiti 'orphan' rescue mission: Adoption or child trafficking? by Matthew Clark 02/01/10; Haiti: Americans accused of child trafficking could be tried in US by Matthew Clark 02/01/10. Clark uses both names for the organization.

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