The Republic of T.

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Kidnapping (Even For Christ) Is A Crime, Pt. 1

Update: It appears that these children really were rescued — by the people who stopped them from being taken out of the country.

It’s being reported now that the 10 missionaries have been charged with child kidnapping and criminal association. And it sounds like the criminal they’re associating with is group leader Laura Silsby, based on her background:

But CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports there are serious questions tonight about Silsby’s motives. The 40-year-old business woman, who convinced members of Idaho’s Central Valley Baptist Church to follow her dream of an orphanage in Haiti, has a troubling financial history.

She’s been the subject of eight civil lawsuits, 14 for unpaid wages, Whitaker reports. Her Meridian, Idaho house is in foreclosure. She’s had at least nine traffic citations in the last 12 years including four for failing to register or insure her car.

The children taken from the group, ranging in age from 2 to 12, were being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children’s Village in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday.

…Coq said that nine of the 10 knew nothing about the alleged scheme, or that paperwork for the children was not in order.

“I’m going to do everything I can to get the nine out,” Coq said. That would still leave mission leader Laura Silsby facing charges.

And AlterNet reports:

Several of the parents claimed that the group told them their kids would be attending school in the Dominican Republic, and would be free to return to Haiti to visit their parents. In fact, the group planned to transport the kids to an orphanage in the neighboring country, where they would be in line for adoption.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in on the case, saying “”It was unfortunate that, whatever the motivation, that this group of Americans took matters into their own hands.” The group had not previously run an orphanage and was not registered as an adoption agency or a non-profit.

It remains to be seen whether Silsby will be found guilty of trafficking, but the accounts so far suggest she was operating exactly the way traffickers in Haiti operate.

Let’s get something straight. Kidnapping is a crime. Taking a child across state or national borders, without the full knowledge and informed consent of the parents or surviving relatives is kidnapping. Taking a child across state or national borders without following the required legal procedures, and obtaining the necessary documents is kidnapping.

–verb (used with object), -napped or -naped, -nap⋅ping or -nap⋅ing. to steal, carry off, or abduct by force or fraud, esp. for use as a hostage or to extract ransom.

And kidnapping is a crime. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a child out of a poor or disaster-stricken country. If you do the above, you are committing a criminal act. You are, in fact, a criminal.

And, no, it doesn’t matter whether your purpose is profit or proselytizing. It doesn’t matter if God, the Tooth Fairy, Charles Manson, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster told you do to it. It doesn’t matter if your Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, or Rosicrucian. You do no have the right to just take a child. Your religion doesn’t give it do you. Nor do your intentions. (Or what you say they are.)

Kidnapping is a crime. Do it, and you are a criminal.

The members of the New Life Children’s Refuge said that they were only trying to provide a better life for the children and denied that the group had done anything wrong. But the problem with following their highest sense of right without proper permission from the authorities is that it may technically be child trafficking. And in a weak country where that illicit trade has exploded in recent years, the authorities are taking this quite seriously.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive denounced the group’s “illegal trafficking of children.”

“This is an abduction, not an adoption,” said Social Affairs Minister Yves Christallin, explaining that children need authorization from the ministry to leave the country.

Apparently, the New Life members had no government-issued paperwork of any kind as they attempted to take the children across the border. “When asked about the children’s documents, they had no documents,” Haitian Culture and Communications Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said.

“You can’t just go and take a child out of a country – no matter what country you are in,” said Kent Page, a spokesman for UNICEF in Haiti. “There are processes that have to be followed. You can’t just pick up a child and walk out of a country with a child, no matter what your best intentions are.”

Adoption v. Abduction

The prime minister is right. It is not an “adoption.” An adoption follows require legal procedures like those above to make sure everyone’s rights are protected — and that the welfare of the child is the ultimate concern. Calling what happened in Haiti an “adoption” is, frankly, insulting to adoptive families — especially after the detailed process, which involved thorough background checks for us (including having our fingerprints run by the FBI, and criminal background checks), references from friends and family, interviews with a social worker. And then there’s the legal process of adoption, including verifying and documenting the will and consent of the birth parents, and efforts to locate birth fathers if they are unknown and give them ample opportunity to come forward and exert their parental rights.

Even after all of the above, in both cases, we were legally required to stay in the state where the child was born, until the interstate compact was processed. (Or at last one of us had to remain in the state with the child.) Again, the reason is so that authorities in both states are fully aware of what’s happening.

Nothing close to that happened in Haiti. Not only were many of the kids not orphans, but some were apparently misinformed about where they were going.

“They were arrested on the border with children that were not theirs, and that they had no papers for,” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told ABC News. “For me, it’s not Americans that were arrested, it was kidnappers that were arrested.”

Henry said he spoke to the missionaries Friday night before they tried to cross the border and they told him there was some confusion over what paperwork they needed to bring the children into the Dominican Republic.

“[They] indicated to me they were doing everything they could to work with the authorities to have the right paperwork and that became one of their frustrations — not understanding everything they needed to have,” Henry said.

Some of the children were apparently not orphans, said George Willeit of SOS Children’s Villages, an nongovernmental international group.

“We already know that some of these children still have parents because an elder girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, told us crying, ‘I am not an orphan. I do have my parents. I thought I was going to boarding school or to a summer camp,'” Willeit said.

In fact, the majority of them had parents

Patricia Vargas, the regional director of the orphan charity SOS Children, said that for legal reasons the children’s identities cannot be revealed.

Vargas answered a call from Haitian authorities to meet the children, who were returned from the border with the neighbouring Dominican Republic, on Saturday.

“The majority of these children have families. Some of the older ones said their parents are alive, and some gave an address and phone numbers,” said Vargas, a Costa Rican who is in charge of SOS Children’s operations in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

A History of Abduction

After the earthquake, there were reports that the quake left Haiti’s children vulnerable to being targeted by traffickers. But the truth is, they have always been vulnerable to traffickers who literally sell them in to slavery, and gain access to them by taking advantage of their parents poverty, desperation, and desire to believe that it’s the only way they can provide a better life for their children.

Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored, striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are the restavèks, the “stay-withs,” as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents, with promises of free schooling and a better life.

The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this:

(Ironically in relation to this story, E. Benjamin Skinner, the man in the first two videos, writes in his book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery of both the concern of the American religious right with modern slavery, and in particular its obsession with sex slavery and sex trafficking while refusing to address other forms of slavery — debt bondage, etc. — or the abject poverty that makes so many vulnerable to enslavement. I’d also recommend John Bowe’s Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, which connects the dots by placing the subject in the context of globalization.)

And it’s not just Haiti that’s cause for concern. The “misunderstanding” in Haiti bears and eerie resemblance to stories both old and new.

In 2007, the African nation of Chad was the backdrop for a similar “orphan debacle.”

The whole episode in Haiti is reminiscent of another orphan debacle in the African nation of Chad that the Monitor reported on in 2007. Back then, 16 Europeans from a France-based group called Zoe’s Ark were charged with trying to smuggle 103 children out of eastern Chad in what the charity workers said was an attempt to save orphans affected by the conflict across the border in Sudan’s Darfur region.

The group tried to circumvent Chadian authorities and fly the children out of the country on a chartered plane. But after it emerged that many of the children were not orphans or from Darfur, locals in Abéché, Chad, began protesting angrily outside the group’s local offices. Western aid groups in the area began to fear for their safety as mistrust of foreigners began to swirl.

A few months later, six French members of Zoe’s Ark were convicted of attempting to kidnap the 103 children and sentenced to eight years of hard labor and ordered to pay restitution amounting to close to $9 million.

Chad’s president, Idriss Deby – a longtime beneficiary of French military and financial support – eventually pardoned the group and they were returned to France.

But not before significant damage had been done, as the Monitor reported.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the case played powerfully as an instance of white colonial arrogance; in France, it was seen as a misguided effort to save lives; and among humanitarian groups it has been seen as the kind of mission that puts experienced, professional aid workers at risk.

And in 2005, in the aftermath of the tsunami, a Virginia based missionary group airlifted 300 Muslim “orphans” from Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, with the stated goal of raising them in a Christian children’s home and ultimately converting them to Christianity.

A Virginia-based missionary group said this week that it has airlifted 300 “tsunami orphans” from the Muslim province of Banda Aceh to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where it plans to raise them in a Christian children’s home.

The missionary group, WorldHelp, is one of dozens of Christian, Muslim and Jewish charities providing humanitarian relief to victims of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that devastated countries around the Indian Ocean, taking more than 150,000 lives.

Most of the religious charities do not attach any conditions to their aid, and many of the larger ones — such as WorldVision, Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service — have policies against proselytizing. But a few of the smaller groups have been raising money among evangelical Christians by presenting the tsunami emergency effort as a rare opportunity to make converts in hard-to-reach areas.

“Normally, Banda Aceh is closed to foreigners and closed to the gospel. But, because of this catastrophe, our partners there are earning the right to be heard and providing entrance for the gospel,” WorldHelp said in an appeal for funds on its Web site this week.

The appeal said WorldHelp was working with native-born Christians in Indonesia who want to “plant Christian principles as early as possible” in the 300 Muslim children, all younger than 12, who lost their parents in the tsunami.

“These children are homeless, destitute, traumatized, orphaned, with nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat. If we can place them in a Christian children’s home, their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people,” it said.

The group eventually cancelled its plans to “rescue” Muslim children and raise them as Christian. But they never admitted that conversion was their aim, or that there was anything wrong with it.

When the story broke, the group’s president offered this laughably transparent — and blatantly dishonest, given what the group said on its own website before the story broke — denial that their aim was to convert these children to Christianity.

[Rev. Vernon] Brewer said the Indonesian government gave permission for the orphans to be flown to Jakarta last week and was aware that they would be raised as Christians.

[“We have no knowledge of this,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said today in Jakarta. “If confirmed, this would constitute a serious violation of the standing ban by the Indonesian government on the adoption of Acehnese children affected by the tsunami disaster and appropriate steps would be taken accordingly.” He added that he did not believe any Indonesian official would have approved the transfer of the children.] “These are children who are unclaimed or unwanted. We are not trying to rip them apart from any existing family members and change their culture and change their customs,” Brewer said. “These children are going to be raised in a Christian environment. That’s no guarantee they will choose to be Christians.”

Writing about the Haiti story at the Huffington Post, Michael Rowe noted: “These missionaries, like western missionaries for hundreds of years, sincerely believe they’re doing “God’s will,” and they believe that this fact should count for more than it has so far.”

Indeed, the actions of these missionaries fit into a much longer “history of abduction,” with roots that reach deep into a brand of cultural arrogance we like to think is relegated to our past.