Children taken from Haiti face uncertain fate (2/8/2010)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/07/AR201002...
.
Washington Post
By Henri Cauvin
.
FERMATHE, HAITI -- It was a couple of weeks after the earthquake when word began to spread in a small, poor village here. American missionaries, a local emissary told the people, were offering to take children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and give them an education and a better life.
.
After the earthquake, which destroyed so many schools, the prospect of an escape for even a few of their children seemed like a blessing. "We were looking to God for something better for our kids," explained Frisner Valmont, 34, a father of three girls.
.
The fliers that the missionaries from New Life Children's Refuge brought to the village of Calebasse promised a beautiful place for the children to live, with a soccer field, a swimming pool and a short walk to the ocean. In a place where jobs are few and food is scarce, the hardest part for many families was choosing which of their children to send on the bus that had brought the missionaries to the impoverished precincts of Fermathe, in the mountains south of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
.
So went some 20 children from Calebasse, driven by their families' desperation, on a bus ride that would be the beginning of a bizarre journey that has landed the 10 missionaries in Haitian jails and has left the children in the stricken country their families wanted them to escape.
.
Arrested as they tried to leave Haiti with a total of 33 children, the 10 Baptist missionaries from Idaho and elsewhere were charged last week with child kidnapping and child smuggling. They are due back in court this week. Investigators have said that the group did not have the proper documents to take the children out of Haiti, and the case has heightened concerns over the trafficking of Haitian children.
.
Though the authorities have not accused the missionaries of transporting the children for work or sex, the case is full of unanswered questions about the group's plans. The orphanage where the children were supposed to be taken was still on the drawing board, and it is unclear how or where the missionary group planned to house the children.
.
And no one appears to know if the 33 children eventually would be put up for adoption. In Haiti, not every child who ends up in an orphanage is, strictly speaking, an orphan. Rather, some come from families too poor to care for their young ones. Calebasse is a place where that predicament was all too real for many families. Aside from farming the rocky, rain-starved soil, there is little work to be had. Food is hard to come by. And the earthquake has made it all worse, villagers say.
.
So it was when one of their neighbors, an English speaker who would serve as the missionaries' interpreter, gathered 40 or so Calebasse families for a meeting on the patch of parched grass where the boys play soccer. A group of missionaries would be coming in a few days, he told the families. And the group wanted to help some of the children by taking them to live and study in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
.
"We want to help Haitian children who have lost their mother and father in the earthquake or have no one to love and care for them," read the flier that the parents received. "We love God and he has given us tremendous love for the children of Haiti. New Life Children's Refuge is a nonprofit Christian ministry dedicated to loving and caring for orphaned and abandoned Haitian children in our orphanage and school in Cabarete/Magante, DR [Dominican Republic]. . . .
.
"We have authorization from the government to bring orphaned children, babies up to 10 years, to our orphanage in the DR. Haitian friends and relatives can come to the DR and visit the children and get updates through our website." It didn't matter that the flier was in English or that few families here could afford the visas to travel to the Dominican Republic, or Internet access to check New Life's Web site.
.
For Frisner Valmont and others here, it was a simple decision. "All the families are victims, all the houses were destroyed, so we have no choice," said Valmont, who chose to send his 8-year-old daughter Alentina with the missionaries. No one thought about the possibility of adoption, Valmont and others said. The word did not come up, they said. And even if it had, their children would always be their children, they explained.
.
"She's old enough to know us," Milien Brutus, 28, said of his little sister Nacofa, 8, who left with the missionaries. Walking to retrieve a photo of her from a neighbor's home, Brutus points to the pink and beige rubble that was his family's house before the earthquake. "We were very happy that they wouldn't have to live in the mess we are now," Brutus said. What's next?
.
But now they face a different sort of uncertainty. Since the arrest of the Americans, the 33 children have been living just outside Port-au-Prince in an orphanage run by the Austrian charity SOS Children's Villages. At first, the children were reluctant to come out to play at SOS, but over the last few days, they have emerged to enjoy the charity's tranquil, shaded campus, which is a startling contrast to the bustle of the capital.
.
Some of them have been visited by their families, but whether they will be reunited with their relatives is up to the country's child welfare authorities. "The children, if you ask them, most of them say, 'I want to go back with my parents,' " said George Willeit, who works for the charity that runs SOS Village and has talked to some of the children. Many are scared and confused, Willeit said, and some, like a girl who is 8 or 9, are having understandable reactions to the jarring turn of events. "She said she wants 'to go back to my father because my mother gave me away.' "
.
Back home in Calebasse, though, there was little talk of the children coming home, only dismay that their journey to a better life had been disrupted.
.
"When I heard the missionaries got arrested on the border, I was sad both for the kids and the missionaries, because they were just helping us," Brutus said. Even as the missionaries face the prospect of long prison sentences, Valmont seems to think everything will turn out all right -- for the Americans, and for his daughter.
.
"I'm waiting for the justice system to clear everything up and then she can leave for Santo Domingo," he said.

Reply