By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A07
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Ten American Baptists who tried to leave Haiti with 33 destitute children were stuck in legal limbo Monday, with Haitian and U.S. officials negotiating over whether the church members should be prosecuted in the United States.
The Americans, Baptist church members from Idaho and other states, said they were taking the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and deny any wrongdoing. But Haitian authorities said members of the group, who have little experience in international adoptions, did not have permission to leave the country with the children.
On Monday, the church members were being held in a dank room at the judicial police headquarters, where they had not yet been charged, as Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and other Haitian authorities met with U.S. officials to discuss their fate.
Fortil Mazar, a prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, said members of the group face kidnapping and child-smuggling charges. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States is helping in the investigation but has not yet determined the "appropriate course" of action.
The case reflects a growing fear in this poverty-stricken country, where the government is on life support and thousands of children were left without parents after the devastating earthquake that struck Jan. 12. Adoptions in Haiti are common, according to agencies that help children, but so is the trafficking of children.
Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, Haiti's communications minister, told reporters Monday afternoon that "people need to be careful about people who may try to kidnap their kids."
"Be careful about people who say they are going to take care of kids; it may not be true," she added.
With Haiti even poorer than before, many parents, particularly those who lost their homes and whatever meager earnings they had, are desperate to find ways to feed their children. At the Parc Boulos camp, a sloping, rocky hill filled with tents and packed tight with families, mothers spoke about trying to find a way to send their children into the countryside or even abroad.
Islande Normil, 31, said that five years ago she gave her two eldest -- Ronason and Jameson, now 12 and 10 -- to an adoption agency and that she assumes they are both in the United States. Another child, a 10-year-old girl, is in an orphanage in Haiti, she said, awaiting parents who may want her in another country. Normil is left with a 3-year-old girl, who rocked in her arms as she talked to a foreign visitor.
"Some people blame me for what I did -- that I gave them away," she explained. "But I gave them a better life."
Normil said she imagines that the children who were discovered with the Baptists were given away by mothers anguished that they could not take care of them. "For the mothers of those kids, these Americans were trying to do good, they were trying to help," she said.
Another mother, Cleande Saint-Felix, 27, said she would not give her children to an orphanage -- but she did give them to her mother, who lives in the countryside, where damage from the quake was light. She held a 5-month-old girl, but the older ones -- ages 9 and 6 -- are already gone.
"It is really difficult to feed them," she said. "My house collapsed and I can't live there anymore."
Soon after the quake, the Haitian government suspended new international adoptions to ensure that children said to be orphans were, in fact, orphaned. Relief agencies said that after a disaster, particularly one so merciless as the quake in Haiti, it is difficult to determine the status of unaccompanied children.
"Children who have become separated from their parents in an emergency situation cannot be assumed to be orphans and are not available for adoption," said Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Haiti. He said that if the fate of a child's parents cannot be verified, then authorities must assume the child still has close relatives.
"These adoption processes must follow clear legal procedures," he said.
The Baptists said that they were simply saving the children, ages 2 to 12, in their care and that they had come from orphanages that had been devastated in the quake.
"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," said a statement on the Web site of Central Valley Baptist Church, which is based in Meridian, Idaho. "Our team was falsely arrested today and we are doing everything we can from this end to clear up the misunderstanding."
One of the detained Baptists, Laura Silsby, told the Associated Press that the group had not obtained the proper Haitian documents to take the children. But she explained that the group was "just trying to do the right thing" to help.
The children are now in the SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince, which reported that some of them had told workers at the home that they are not orphans.
At the judicial police headquarters, one mother who spoke briefly with reporters Monday said that she had turned over five of her children to a Haitian orphanage and that she was surprised to learn that they had wound up with the Baptists.
A detective, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give interviews, said parents who hand over their children often do not inquire about what their futures hold. "But they do not hand them over so foreigners take them away," he said.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.