Question: Who set all this up?

If you want to be truly depressed, read this New York Times report that ran under the headline: “Bleak Portrait of Haiti Orphanages Raises Fears.” Here’s the start of Ginger Thompson’s report from Port-au-Prince:

The floors were concrete and the windows were broken.

There was no electricity or running water. Lunch looked like watery
grits. Beds were fashioned from sheets of cardboard. And the only
toilet did not work.

But the Foyer of Patience here is like hundreds of places that pass as orphanages for thousands of children in the poorest country in the hemisphere. Many are barely habitable, much less licensed. They have no means to provide real schooling or basic medical care, so children spend their days engaged in mindless activities, and many die from treatable illnesses.

Haiti’s child welfare system was broken before the earthquake struck. But as the quake shattered homes and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, the number of children needing care grew exponentially.

The bottom line: Haitian authorities have every reason to believe that orphaned, abandoned and needy children are ending up in the hands of people whose motives are certainly much worse than the now infamous 10 Baptists from Idaho who remain at the center of an international media frenzy.

Many children are on their way to being sold as servants and sex slaves. Some of these victims are passing through “orphanages.” Many more are not. As the Times noted:

While there is no evidence that the Americans, who said they were trying to rescue children in the aftermath of the earthquake, intended any harm, the ease with which they drove into the capital and scooped up a busload of children without documents exposed vast gaps in the system’s safeguards. …

At the front lines of the system are the orphanages, which run the gamut from large, well-equipped institutions with international financing to one-room hovels in a slum where a single woman cares for abandoned children as best she can.

Most of the children in them, the authorities said, are not orphans, but children whose parents are unable to provide for them. To desperate parents, the orphanage is a godsend, a temporary solution to help a child survive a particularly tough economic stretch. Many orphanages offer regular family visiting hours and, when their situations improve, parents are allowed to take their children back home.

The Southern Baptists from Idaho said claim that the purpose of their short-term, independent mission was to set up just such an orphanage — across the border. The claim that some of the true orphans were candidates for adoption and that those with family in Haiti were not. The reporting in the Times has repeatedly demonstrated the confusion surrounding these claims, with new questions being raised in almost every report.

Then there is the even darker world of the criminal networks. Were the Baptists caught because they were not corrupt enough?

There is no precise count of the number of orphanages in this country, the number of children living in them, or of the children who are victims of trafficking, although Unicef estimates that number in the tens of thousands per year. The authorities said thousands of those trafficked were sold as servants, known as restaveks, to well-to-do Haitian families. Others, officials say, are smuggled into the Dominican Republic to do domestic and agricultural work, often in appalling conditions. …

Haitian authorities acknowledge that the fledgling efforts of a financially struggling government long plagued by corruption have proved little match for the highly organized, multimillion-dollar criminal networks.

After reading the latest wave of reporting on this case, I have two main questions — especially since it is clear that the members of the Idaho team were outsiders who do not speak Creole.

(1) While the Americans were said to have lacked at least one crucial document when they tried to cross the border, who obtained and filled out all of the documents that were already in their possession? Who handled the earlier contacts with the government?

(2) Who were the Haitians who handled the contacts with the distressed local parents, before and after the Idaho team arrived? Who communicated the terms of the offer? Who, supposedly, received the consent of these Haitian parents?

In other words, who served as the bridge between Laura Silsby, the controversial businesswoman who led the Idaho team, and its partners on the ground in Haiti? As another Times report notes:

Family and friends of the group members have said little critical of Ms. Silsby or the churches that helped promote the trip. Mr. Lankford said that he was not sure how well his family members knew Ms. Silsby, but that their understanding was that logistical and legal details in Haiti were “being taken care of.”

Haitian officials say Ms. Silsby lacked documentation to take custody of and travel with the children. A lawyer in Haiti for the group, Edwin Coq, suggested to reporters this week that Ms. Silsby might face a difficult prosecution. … When Mr. Coq was asked about the other nine Americans, he echoed their friends and relatives here: “completely innocent,” he said.

The stories keep spiraling back to a central question: Who made the arrangements on the ground in Haiti, handling the contacts with the families and the incomplete contacts with the government?

The odds are very good that they speak Creole.

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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.

  • Teresa

    Some other questions that warrant asking are WHERE did Laura Silsby get the idea in the first place to open up this “orphanage”? Did it morph from her idea to open up a children’s home in Kuna, Idaho after that plan fell through? And WHERE did the idea come from to develope and open up the multi-million dollar facility in Kuna? Was there a gifted, oratorical charismatic director of ANOTHER children’s home in the U.S. that she wanted to follow the model of? If THESE questions could be answered, I’m confident another whole can of worms would be opened here.

  • Julia

    I’d like to know something about the laws on the books in Haiti regarding abandoned, lost and orphaned children.
    Surely, most of these children have relatives of some kind -what are their rights? What are the guardianship regulations; what office is in charge of policing “orphanages”?

    I read in a report somewhere that the original lawyer for the Idaho group wanted money from them for bribing officials. Is that true? Is so, good for them to publicly talk about it.

  • Peter

    Does it really matter who their contact was on the ground? They Florida-based minister who was allegedly their contact in Haiti has essentially disappeared.

    But isn’t the issue whether these people were so naive–if, in fact, it was naivete–that they trusted someone on the ground they barely knew? Or did they have much ulterior motives? Or were they calling the shots from the beginning.

  • phil

    From the countless articles I’ve read, I believe there were no prior or permanent counterparts ‘on the ground’ in Haiti. Just people they met along the way in their search for orphans.
    One was a Haitian preacher from Georgia they ran into at the border going into Haiti, but who left before them. Another one was a young Haitian, who was himself raised at an orphanage in Calebasse and translated for them.

    Yet on the other hand, to convince the Catholic Diocese in Puerto Plata DR, who reluctantly agreed to rent them 45 rooms for 6 months, Silsby claimed they ”urgently needed shelter for children from an organization called Friends of the Orphans which New Life Childrens’ Refuge (Silsby’s group) was supporting.”.

    Friends of The Orphans is a legitimate organization, but their name has not come up in connection with Silsby’s mission. Meanwhile we know that they knocked on several orphanages’ doors only to be turned down.

    Also striking is the fact that their first lawyer, Edwin Coq (who does not speak English), was hired by their attorney in the Dominican Republic, and not by anyone in Haiti. Why the Dominican connection?

    I am afraid Ms Silby suffers from mythomania, willing to make up any story to fulfill her dream of a creating an orphanage on the North Coast of the D.R. (and apparently one in Idaho as well). I don’t want to speculate on the motivations behind that dream.

    Fortunately the new lawyer who was appointed today does speak English, has traveled extensively, seems very respected, and I am confident this sad adventure will soon end for the 9 (or 8?) members of the ‘mission’ who were accidentally part of this train wreck.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Thompson’s story also mentions the Foyer of Zion orphanage, which comes off better than the Foyer of Patience orphanage only by a few degrees of hell.

    She says this about Foyer of Zion:

    “The director, Marjorie Mardy, said that the center was financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that several members from the United States had rushed to Port-au-Prince after the earthquake to take home children who had been in the adoption process for more than two years.

    “Most of the children, however, were in legal limbo, she said. Their parents had not given up custody, nor had they any clear plans for bringing the children home. Many children had been dropped off at the orphanage without any documents providing their names, ages or need for specialized care, which Ms. Mardy acknowledges she is unable to provide.

    “There was a baby so frail and shriveled she was clearly sick, but Ms. Mardy said she had not been able to take her for tests. A toddler who seemed lethargic and unresponsive had been running a low-grade fever since arriving at the orphanage after the earthquake. But she had not been taken to a doctor.”

    Pretty bad, yet there’s no comment from any LDS authority confirming this or explaining why their facility is only marginally better than the horrific lead example. Why?

    Seems to me a more egregious journalistic oversight than the imprecise but not incorrect usage of “American Baptists” that drew so much attention here.

  • tmatt

    A tragic update from the TIMES.

    It seems that the paperwork snafus are now shutting down all kinds of Haiti relief efforts — secular and sacred.

    Once again, not the complexity of the details about what is happening on the ground.