Saving Children: Helping or Exploiting in Haiti?

By now, everyone has heard of the church group that was stopped and arrested by Haitian authorities and charged with abducting Haitian children. To the Haitians, this was a U.S. group kidnapping children in the wake of the earthquake for adoption by American families, taking advantage of the thriving and often black market for children sometimes bought or abducted from developing nations. On the part of the church group, this was a humanitarian effort by Christian missionaries to provide homes for children who lost their parents in the January 12th quake.

It seems this mission may not have been quite so humanitarian after all.

The leader of the group was a 40-year-old woman from Idaho, Laura Silsby. Information on Silsby in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that this story is about something other than and perhaps antithetical to charity or if Silsby was charitably motivated, she might not have been the person to rely on to carry out this mission. Silsby founded a nonprofit called New Life Children’s Refuge in November according to the WSJ. The Nonprofit Quarterly couldn’t find the organization in the online Publication 78 at IRS.gov, suggesting that this “nonprofit” doesn’t have a 501(c)(3). The organization was “embraced,” according to the WSJ, by the Central Valley Baptist Church in Median, Idaho outside of Boise, for its mission of “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.”

What do we know about Silsby? Not much, but enough to raise eyebrows:

  • She runs an online personal shopping service called Personal Shopper whose business hit the skids in recent years. Silsby settled a federal court case alleging that Personal Shopper owed $320,000 to a Florida-based media group. Although she settled for less than that amount in 2008, the attorney for the media group says that Silsby hasn’t paid up and has dodged the plaintiff’s lawyer’s calls. She has been named in 14 claims by staff or former staff of Personal Shopper for nonpayment of wages filed in 2008 and 2009.
  • Her house was foreclosed on in December, according to a broker she hired to sell the property.
  • She apparently had announced a plan to acquire a 40-acre site in Idaho to develop as a “multi-million-dollar complex” for runaway children, replete with indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, and dormitories. Silsby’s personal and business problems appear to have stymied that plan.

Her Haitian expedition seemed to have similar evidence of credibility gaps:

  • She contends that her group planned to rent a 45-room hotel in Cabarete in the Dominican Republic to put Haitian orphans while they built a permanent facility for as many as 200 orphans, with a school and seaside villas for adopting parents. It isn’t clear whether they actually had secured the hotel rooms, much less made any progress at all on the property for orphans.
  • According to documentation of their plans, Silsby and her companions planned to drive a bus to Port-au-Prince and simply take 100 orphans from the streets to take to the Dominican Republic.
  • They were caught taking 33 children aged 2 months to 13 years, but all weren’t orphans: some were simply children “given up” by their families. There is no indication in the article whether the process included giving money to their parents.
  • Silsby contends that a Haitian minister arranged the paperwork for her, and her arrest on the Dominican Republic border was due to one missing required document. According to the Dominican Republic’s consul general in Port-au-Prince, Silsby’s group lacked any of the required documents to transport the kids, and she had been told that she risked arrest if she tried to.

Silsby and her colleagues were charged with children abduction and criminal association, but not the more serious charges of kidnapping and child trafficking. Haitian authorities told the Idaho Statesman that Silsby knew all along that she lacked the paperwork and approvals to take the children to the Dominican Republic. To us, the more information that surfaces about Silsby’s scheme, the less it sounds charitable and humanitarian.

The international adoption market for wealthy Americans and Europeans looking for kids in developing countries is a continuing scandal, notwithstanding efforts to regulate the process through international agreements such as the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention) adopted in 1993. A devastating article in a November 2008 issue of Foreign Policy suggests that despite the Hague Convention, the international child adoption industry is still riddled with problems:

“We all know the story of international adoption: Millions of infants and toddlers have been abandoned or orphaned—placed on the side of a road or on the doorstep of a church, or left parentless due to AIDS, destitution, or war. These little ones find themselves forgotten, living in crowded orphanages or ending up on the streets, facing an uncertain future of misery and neglect. But, if they are lucky, adoring new moms and dads from faraway lands whisk them away for a chance at a better life. Unfortunately, this story is largely fiction.”

The fact that Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake shouldn’t be an excuse for turning the nation into an unregulated adoption free-for-all facilitated by well-meaning or perhaps sometimes less well-meaning Americans.