A CBS News employee who witnessed today’s court proceedings says Silsby told the judge: “We were trying to do what’s best for the children.”
When the judge asked, “Didn’t you know you were committing a crime?” Silsby quietly answered, “We are innocent.”
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.
It suggests that perhaps Silsby, in convincing the church members to “follow her dream” of an orphanage in Haiti, may have actually have conned them in to becoming accomplices in what sounds more and more like a typical trafficking operation.
And that’s what the attorney for the missionary group seems to think. Not only did Silsby apparently lie about the childrens’ status as orphans, but may have lied about not knowing that she needed documents from the Hatian government to take the children out of the country.
Attorney Edwin Coq said Laura Silsby knew the group couldn’t remove the youngsters without proper paperwork, while he characterized the other nine missionaries as unknowingly being caught up in actions they didn’t understand.
“I’m going to do everything I can to get the nine out. They were naive. They had no idea what was going on and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border. But Silsby did,” Coq said Thursday after a magistrate charged the 10 at a closed hearing.
…She also said the Americans believed they had obtained in the Dominican Republic all the documents needed to take the children out of Haiti.
The Dominican consul in Haiti, Carlos Castillo, told the AP on Thursday that the day the Americans departed for the border, Silsby visited him and said she had a document from Dominican migration officials authorizing her to take the children from Haiti.
Castillo said he warned Silsby that if she lacked adoption papers signed by the appropriate Haitian officials her mission would be considered child trafficking. “We were very specific,” he said.
It’s sounding more and more like Silsby, regardless of what she might say, operated exactly like a typical trafficker Haiti might operate — exploiting of people’s poverty, desperation, naivete to suit her own ends, using deception to achieve her ends, and counting on the chaos of the earthquake aftermath to help her get away with it.
In fact, someone in her position could have seen in the disaster in Haiti an opportunity to solve financial difficulty or just make a profit. The news report quoted above indicates that Silsby started planning the orphanage last summer. It wouldn’t take much more than a little research to understand, even before the earthquake, that child slavery and trafficking were common — and profitable — practices in Haiti. I know because I did that research myself a year ago.
That was when the movie Trade showed up in my mailbox via Netflix. I didn’t remember adding it to my queue, but it was probably recommended based on another movie I watched or rated. So, I watched it.
I read Peter Landesman’s New York Times Magazine article, which inspired the movie. And I followed the controversy inspired by Landesman’s article and questions about its veracity. That was all it took. The article, the controversy, and the issue were enough to make me want to know more.
So, I started doing research, for no other reason than because I wanted to, and there was something I waned to know. It’s always been a quirk of mine, and one that I indulge in my blogging. I, for some odd reason, enjoy doing research, taking results, and putting them into a context. It’s closely related to my love of writing, I suspect, and part of why I’ve been an avid reader all my life. I latch on to a subject and read everything I can find on it (or watch any television show or documentary I can find about it), until I’m satisfied that I at least understand it a little better than I did before.
it was several books: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade–and How We Can Fight It, Enslaved: True Stories of Modern Day Slavery, Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader, Slavery Today, To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves, and Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.
What I gained was a better understanding of what defines modern day slavery, how it works, and how poverty (as well as corruption) plays a role in sustaining the modern slave trade by ensuring a seemingly endless supply. In Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves, Kevin Bales puts into words just how, in countries like Haiti, extreme poverty leads parents to make decisions that people in more privileged countries can’t comprehend.
Poverty is often thought of as having two levels, though this is just a rough guideline. At the bottom level are more than 1 billion people who live on $1 a day or less. All these people are living in the developing world, and for the most part, they are living outside towns and cities living out the same hand-to-mouth existence that was the rule for most of human history. What does it mean to be this poor? It means you are always hungry and that access to medical care and education for your children are pretty much out of the question. It means that you are unlikely to have the basic needs of life: clean water, a roof to keep out the rain, adequate clothing, or even pair of shoes.
This is life without options. Every action must be aimed at day-to-day survival, and even that survival is not assured. Desperation is the norm, and families are ready to do anything to survive. These families are found especially in South Asia and rural Africa, areas where slavery thrives. Later in this book you will meet families who are trying to live on 40 cents a day. These are families whose children are regularly harvested into slavery.
…In fact, if we compare the level of poverty and the amount of slavery for 193 of the worlds countries, the pattern is obvious. The poorest countries have the highest levels of slavery. The relationship would be exact except for the effects of global human trafficking in which the vulnerable are enslaved and transported from poor countries to rich ones, with the result that the richest countries have significant pockets of slavery.
…Those of us living in the rich half of the world need to think about this carefully. Giving public talks, I am often asked, “How can a mother sell her child like that?” Confronted with the story of a parent who has let a child go with a trafficker, the listener recoils and assumes the parent must be a monster. I have heard people say, “We love our children so much that we would never allow them to be taken away, but people over there feel differently; children don’t mean as much to them.” Don’t believe that for a second. Parents everywhere will do everything in their power to protect their children. But in extreme poverty parents get caught in a horrible situation and have to make horrible decisions. Often it boils down to, “Do I take a chance that this person’s offer of food and a job is real, or do I risk keeping my children here and watching them starve?” The fact that sometimes parents make a bad decision doesn’t mean they don’t love their children. All parents want their children to be safe and educated.
If poverty can mean choosing between keeping your child with your and almost certainly watching them starve, or sending them away to have even a chance of survival, how many parents would rather have a child die with them, than a child who is at least alive somewhere if not with them? The poverty so many live with in Haiti would make it easy for so many parents to believe — to want to believe — when Silsby — presenting herself as a Christian missionary, thus increasing the likelihood that they might trust her — told them she was offering a chance to get their children out of a desperate situation that had become more dangerous.
(An examination of the origins and causes of the level of poverty in Haiti would require another post and more knowledge of history than I have. But it’s been well covered by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lisa Pease — twice —, Berkeley professor Pery Hintzen, Bill Moyers, and Amy Wilentz.)
Lely Laurentus thought he was doing the right thing when he handed his two young children over to an American woman who promised to take them to a better place.
Laura Silsby, a member of Idaho-based New Life Childrens Refuge, had given him a flyer from her charity saying that it wanted to help “children who have lost their mother and father in the earthquake or have no one to love and care for them.”
She promised schooling, soccer fields and even a swimming pool. She told Laurentus that she had government permission to carry out her plan, he said.
Laurentus loved his girls. They were everything to him, he said. But he also thought of his own life — he dropped out of school at 15 and worked two jobs to put food on the table.
In the devastating January 12 earthquake, he lost the meager home he had sitting on a hillside in Calebasse.
“I cant stand that they were suffering here,” Laurentus said. “I had confidence in the Americans. I trusted them.”
So Thursday night, when Silsby came with a bus, he placed his girls, Soraya, 4, and Leila, 5, on two seats toward the front. He didnt pack any of their things, he said. Not even their teddy bear. The American woman had bags filled with clothes, toys and snacks.
She promised other parents that their children could come back to visit Haiti.
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.
Silsby may not have to Laurentus or other parents all that her plans included: “The Idaho churches had elaborate plans before the earthquake to shelter up to 200 Haitian and Dominican boys and girls in the Magante beach resort, complete with a school and chapel as well as villas and a seaside cafe catering to adoptive U.S. parents.” Nor did she likely tell them that the group had never previously run an orphanage, and was not registered as an adoption agency or a non-profit — thus, having neither experience, accountability, or oversight that might protect their children.
Chances are, if she is indeed the ringleader in this debacle, and the kind of grifter her record suggests, Silsby may have set herself up to deceive a number of people and expoit their desires for her own financial gain. If she didn’t tell the parents the whole truth, she could exploit their desire to protect their children. If she didn’t tell the potential adoptive parents that none of it was legal, she exploit their desire to be parents and to adopt, pocket their fees or “donations,” and leave them and the children vulnerable in the absence of legal adoption.
But she couldn’t do it alone. She would need accomplices, preferably accomplices who didn’t share her motivation, who would be malleable, gullible, and willing to sacrifice and endure hardship, discomfort, and hard work because they have another — perhaps higher — motivation: they are doing “God’s work,” or want to believe that they are.
Just, as Michael Rowe said, like western missionaries for hundreds of years.