One Haitian pastor found, but another missing

GetReligion readers who are closely following that twisted story of the Southern Baptists from Idaho and the case of the 33 Haitian “orphans” — the quote marks will be explained shortly — need to know that there has been an important development.

A reporter from the Associated Press has found, and interviewed, one of the Haitian pastors who was supposed to have been doing the set-up work for the 10 Baptists from America who have been caught in the middle of an international media storm.

Do they deserve to be in that storm and, of course, in a Haitian jail? They certainly made serious mistakes and the New York Times has dug up some strange information about the rather shoddy nature of their operation back in Idaho. More on that later.

First, let’s walk our way through some of the claims by Pastor Jean Sainvil, who admits that the Americans failed to fill out the proper paperwork in Haiti. Oh, and it seems that this pastor now lives in Atlanta?

The 10 Baptists from Idaho were arrested at the border after authorities said they tried leaving the country without papers. An orphanage director also said many of the children had parents. But Pastor Jean Sainvil, who returned to Atlanta last week from Haiti, told The Associated Press the children and their relatives knew of the missionaries’ plan.

“They did not act foolishly in any shape or form. They acted with a good heart. These kids desperately needed help and they did everything they could have done to help,” said Sainvil, a Haitian-born pastor who leads a suburban Atlanta church. “I don’t think they stepped over the line, they just didn’t know the full process.”

This is interesting since the Americans seemed to have been saying that Sainvil was in charge of paving their way, in terms of making arrangements.

It is also clear here that Sainvil is not the person in charge of the orphanage mentioned in previous stories.

Keep reading:

Sainvil said he worked with Idaho-based New Life Children’s Refuge as an unpaid consultant because of his knowledge of Haiti’s customs, his background as an orphan himself and his fluency in French Creole and Spanish. He traveled with the missionaries to the orphanage, and said he agreed to a plan that would send a busload of them across the border even though some of the children still had living parents.

“When we think orphanage, it’s someone without a mother and father. In Haiti, it’s not the case,” he said, saying that many children in orphanages there are given up by parents who cannot care for their children. After last month’s devastating earthquake, he said, the need for help was even greater.

“These parents are homeless and hopeless,” he said. “Everybody agreed that they knew where the children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed they would be allowed to see the children and even take them back if need be.”

The children whose parents were still alive were to be kept in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Officials there were to help the parents get visas to visit and work to reunite them in Haiti, he said. The plan for those without parents was still murky, though Sainvil said some of them could have been put up for adoption.

So “orphans” are not always orphans, even though they live in an orphanage.

Now, that is this pastor’s side of the story and what he is saying certainly contrasts quite a bit with details reported elsewhere. However, it is a plausible story, especially if one reads all the way to the end of that New York Times story mentioned earlier.

Early on, this story includes some of the details that point to the low-quality — at best — nature of the Idaho operation. These details about the planned facility in the Dominican Republic certainly jump off the page (ditto for the strange detail from Idaho):

In addition to providing a swimming pool, soccer field and access to the beach for the children, the group, known as the New Life Children’s Refuge, said it also planned to “provide opportunities for adoption,” and “seaside villas for adopting parents to stay while fulfilling the requirement for 60-90 day visit.”

An empty house in an unfinished subdivision in Meridian, Idaho, is listed on the nonprofit incorporation papers filed in Idaho for the organization. The address was listed in November on papers Laura Silsby filed to establish New Life as a nonprofit. Two days after the papers were filed, records show, Ms. Silsby sold the house at a substantial loss. Signs in front of the house on Tuesday offered it for sale as a foreclosed property.

But things get really interesting near the bottom, where several controversial threads are woven together — showing just how complex this story is, once you have made it past the cable news reports.

Several parents denied accusations that they had been given money for their children, or that they wanted their children to be put up for adoption.

They trusted the Americans, they said, because they arrived with the recommendation of a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area. A woman who answered the door at Mr. Murphy’s house said he had gone to Miami. But she also said that he did not know anything about the Americans.

So we have another Haitian pastor involved in this transaction — another Protestant, operating in a land of great tension between Protestants, Catholics and those who blend Voodoo and elements of Catholic tradition.

Who is Pastor Philippe Murphy? Is he the leader of the orphanage — surely Protestant — that the Idaho Baptists worked with to find these children? Why has this Haitian pastor gone to Miami? One more question: Are the Baptists from Idaho major funders of his orphanage?

After my first post on this subject, several people — in the comments section and in emails — claimed that I was trying to defend the Baptists from Idaho. That was not my intent.

What I was saying is that early stories raised all kinds of practical, factual questions and that journalists might want to slow down and try to find out if some of the claims being made by the Americans were true. There may be enough sin and tragedy in this story to cover all kinds of people in Haiti — Americans, Haitian pastors, a government official or two and perhaps even some desperate parents. Who, for example, is making claims that some of the parents were given money in exchange for their children?

After these two stories, I have more questions than before. This is not comforting.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Yamilee

    Why isn’t anyone investigating the Dominican side of the story? Cabarete appears to be a beach resort town, a relatively luxurious one, in which every vacation house has its own pool (Google Satellite Maps, check it out)… would the Dominicans really want an orphanage full of Haitian children in a tourist destination such as that? Why were they not in contact with the Dominican consulates/embassy in Haiti, or the Haitian consulates/embassy in the Dominican Republic? And although the Dominicans have provided tremendous support to Haiti at this time, there is a LONG history of tension, with arbitrary deportations of “Haitians” and often, simply dark-skinned Dominicans – what would have prevented the arbitrary deportation of these “orphans” back into Haiti? Especially without any papers? There is also much trafficking of Haitian children into the Dominican Republic to work as domestic servants and in sexual tourism… WHO were their contacts in the Dominican Republic? Were they inadvertently working with real traffickers?

  • Rosemaria

    To answer the question about Philippe Murphy, the NYT used the French spelling. The Anglo version is Phil Murphy, who is the co-founder of an orphanage called “House of Blessings” located very nearby to where these children are living in encampments. Phil Murphy lives in FL and House of Blessings is not a Baptist orphanage.

    Now whether or not they are the same person, your guess is as good as mine. He is not Haitian-American as some press outlets reported.

    Also, recent news, Charissa claims that Laura’s living room was full of supplies for the trip just days ago. Another source reported that Laura sold her house two days after she incorporated NLCR because the house was in foreclosure. Now, she could have rented another house between the sale date at the end of November and stored the donated goods there.

  • Martha

    This story is getting murkier and murkier. When I first heard the story, I wondered if this might be the case of a religious group being involved rather than child traffickers, and that is what it seems to be.

    On the other hand, this group seems to have been operating on good intentions and ignorance, with a touch of arrogance thrown in. Even with the best intentions, swooping in and taking away kids over the border to the Dominican Republic – and possibly back to the U.S. – on what appears to be no-one’s say-so other than an absentee pastor and with no trace of trying to talk to the Haitian Embassy, or one of the Consulates? Which I would have thought they would need to do, when they’re taking children across the border?

    You can see why the Haitian government did arrest them, even if they’re not guilty of anything other than foolishness. Foreigners coming in and taking kids away have to be kept track of, because unfortunately there are such things as trafficking in children either for sale for adoption, work or sex.

  • Ann

    Interesting information about Laura Silsby, New Life Children’s Refuge:

    Laura Silsby, a local missionary to Haiti, left trail of financial woes in Idaho. The Boise woman has a pattern of flouting laws. She’s due in Ada court again this month.

    “But even before Laura L. Silsby and seven other Idahoans ended up in a Haitian jail accused of trafficking in children, Silsby had a history of failing to pay debts, failing to pay her employees and failing even to follow Idaho laws.

    Silsby has been the subject of eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims. The $358,000 Meridian house at which she founded her nonprofit New Life Children’s Refuge in November was foreclosed upon in December. A check of Silsby’s driving record revealed at least nine traffic citations since 1997, including four for failing to provide insurance or register annually.


    How were they going to support all the children they took?

  • Marie

    Ah, disorganized religion.
    I din’t know if this question has been asked but why did these Americans venture down to Haiti to transport the children instead of their Haitian partners? Where there any local staff (Haitian or Dominican) with the group crossing the border? Because I can’t understand why Americans, soley (if there were no local staff accompanying), had to transport the children. The sense I get is this is one of those stupid short mission trips where nothing good gets accomplished, you go down for a week, and come back home so you can say you “helped” in the name of the Lord. Except in this case they accomplished getting thrown in jail.

  • Elaine T

    Good reporting in this morning’s (Friday’s) Wall Street Journal. She had a web business, personal shopper, that had been doing well – well enough that she got a business award.
    And some detail about the Idaho Baptist congregation she’d been working with.

    But my overall impression is of a certain kind of stupidity: Big ambitions, insufficient grasp of how to accomplish.

  • Peggy

    This story is blowing me away. It is very complex with so many questions about who was “in charge” in Haiti and what legal authority they obtained–apparently none?–to take the children from their home country. And why set up an orphanage in Dominican Republic? That’s suspicious to me as well. [People who want to adopt do not need luxurious beach property to attract them. You would not believe the places people have to go to in Eastern Europe to see kids in orphanages.]

    I think at a minimum, this group got the idea to establish an adoption agency for these kids after seeing the families who had adoptions in progress agonize over the wait. What nation would approve moving the children to another nation to be put in an orphanage and possibly to be adopted to families in still another nation?

    Were they being altruistic? Was it really child trafficking? The idea to locate an orphanage in DR is what makes me very suspicious of them. Were they planning to traffic in adoptions for profit?

    Where are the clergy involved? Are they fakes?

    It is true that “orphans” doesn’t necessarily mean children whose parents are deceased. In other nations, eg Russia, it can include children whose parents lost custody b/c of alcoholism, absence. Some children are in the orphanage and visited by relatives (eg grandparents) who are financially unable to care for them.

  • Elaine T

    The story in the WSJ (paper version) that I read today says they were planning to take care of both Haitian and Dominican orphans. Which might help explain why the taking of Haitian to the Dominican Republic.

    What I’m wondering about – and the reporters were, too – are the finances. The woman is in debt, foreclosed, owed judgements in the thousands of dollars. How is she going to pay for the land for the ‘orphanage’. How was she going to pay for hotel rental where she was planning to keep the kids while the orphanage was built?

    Why wasn’t she worrying about paying off what she owed before trying something like this? And what’s this about talking to an Idaho builder about a 45 acre home for runaways? She may be an adult, but I finished reading (instead of skimming) the story wondering where the adults and responsible people were. Her mother is quoted as saying she’s not irresponsible, it’s just that when the economy went south so did her business.

    The reporters just leave the quote there, and discuss the judgement of owing (IIRC) $232K. Which she hasn’t paid. The foreclosed home…and let the facts speak for themselves.

    What they didn’t cover was anyone to do with the congregation the gal is/was working with.