Rest of the Idaho Baptists story?

More than three months ago, 10 Baptist mission workers from Idaho made major headlines when they tried to take 33 children from earthquake-devastated Haiti.

The latest twist in the strange, confusing case came this week:

BOISE, Idaho — The leader of an American group detained while trying to take 33 children out of Haiti after the January earthquake returned Tuesday to Idaho, deferring questions about her conviction for arranging illegal travel.

Laura Silsby was freed Monday after she was convicted by a judge for arranging illegal travel and sentenced to time already served in jail. She was welcomed at the Boise airport by a cheering crowd that included her sister, mother and members of her Idaho church.

Silsby cried while hugging family members, raised her hands in the air as her pastor led the group in prayer, and sang a hymn with members of her church congregation.

“It feels incredible,” Silsby said. “I just give praise to my God and I thank him for bringing me home.”

Before I get into the meat of this post, let me say that I appreciate the description in the third paragraph of that Associated Press story. It helps paint the scene of Silsby’s homecoming. I do wish, however, that the writer — or his editors — had gone all the way and named the hymn. Or am I the only reader who wondered what hymn they sang to welcome this woman home after 100-plus days behind bars?

The Idaho Statesman included this interesting religious nugget in its story:

The three visited Silsby twice a day at the Port-Au-Prince jail, where Silsby was held in a roughly 12-by-12-foot cell that had one cot and an ever-changing number of inmates.

Some left the cell with newfound faith, Mel Coulter said.

“She witnessed to at least 10 people who became Christians,” he said. “What began as a children’s ministry became a jail ministry.”

But the point of this post really isn’t to analyze the homecoming coverage. Rather, this is my question: Is this story — which made such big headlines in the beginning — the victim of media attention-deficit disorder? It seems to me that there are still nagging questions about the Idaho mission workers and the Haiti government’s prosecution that need to be explored. Unfortunately, media interest seems to have waned.

A later version of the AP homecoming story focused on Silsby’s personal problems — including a failed business with disgruntled employees and a custody fight with her ex-husband. While those are legitimate questions, the story does not make clear the extent, if any, to which her time behind bars exacerbated those issues.

However, it seems that the storyline concerning what happened in Haiti has been paved in concrete by the media when, in fact, questions remain that still need to be investigated — questions that might be easier to pursue with the last mission worker out of custody.

Baptist Press raised a number of those questions this week in what it labeled an “exclusive” report on the 10 Baptists from Idaho. The Southern Baptist news service interviewed mission worker Paul Thompson, who gave a “radically different” account from most media reports of what transpired in the earthquake-ravaged nation. His specific claims:

– The 10 Americans did not, as has been alleged in some accounts, go through the streets of Port-au-Prince passing out flyers and going door-to-door looking for children, Thompson said. Instead, the 33 children they were trying to take across the border in a medium-sized bus came from two orphanages, and orphanage workers told them that none of the children had parents.

– The group was told multiple times before they got to the border that their documentation and paperwork — the source of the controversy — was sufficient, Thompson said. A Haitian child services official said as much, as did a Haitian policeman and an orphanage director who has extensive experience transferring orphans from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

– The 10 Baptists were arrested in Port-au-Prince, and not at the border. They thought they would go free until UNICEF — a United Nations agency — got involved and pressed charges, Thompson says.

– They were arrested on Jan. 30, and not Jan. 29 as has been reported repeatedly.

The 4,000-word account by Baptist Press goes into great detail conveying Thompson’s side of the story. Certainly, his side is just one piece of the puzzle, but delving into his claims could help shine further light on this situation. AP, among others, went to the trouble to investigate this case — or at least certain aspects of it — in the early stages.

But while the original story plot — sinister missionaries attempt to kidnap Haitian children — made for sensational coverage, the actual circumstances may be more complicated.

Will anyone in the media attempt to figure out what really happened?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Perpetua

    My questions are:

    Who was the UNICEF woman in charge that told the children the 10 missionaries were going to take them to use their organs?

    Why did UNICEF get involved?

    Why did they accuse the missionaries of kidnapping. etc?

  • blestou

    Will anyone in the [mainstream] media attempt to figure out what really happened?


  • Louise

    I wish someone dare get to truth of this. Its a shame about the decline in journalism, and investigative journalism in particular.

    This lady was found guilty but let out for the lack of a infrastructure in Haiti. This lady was skirting the law down there when the country was at its most vulnerable and misreading many in her own group. We need to take a look at what we pass off as missionary work. It should be a head’s up for us. Its seems some of these do-gooders aren’t always on the up and up. No one doubts the faith of the Baptist Church, but the shenanigans this lady was up smears the group’s good intentions.

  • blestou

    Arguably, she was found guilty due to the lack of infrastructure in Haiti.

    The group claims to have traveled around Port-au-Prince (and to the border) for several days, meeting with government officials, orphanages, the police, and border guards – not exactly the modus operadi of most people who are “skirting the law.” How much more “up and up” would you like them to be?

    Are their claims true or not? Hence the need for more journalism.

    I think the “missionaries as idiotic wrongly-intentioned criminals” storyline was too good to pass up the first time, and too satisfying to revisit now.

  • Chip

    to which her time behind bars exasperated those issues

    Didn’t you mean exacerbated?

  • tmatt


    Thanks for the heads up. I’m sure that the whole situation exasperated some folks involved…..

  • Bobby

    OK, no more five-sillyable words for me. :-)

  • Bob Smietana

    Aside from the “UNICEF is in league with the devil,” accusation, the Baptist Press story confirms much of the reporting from the time of the group’s arrest. Namely, that that their plan to rescue orphans was ill-conceived and that their leaders were woefully unprepared for the reality of trying to work in Haiti. The kids they had on the bus were not orphans and they had no paperwork or permission that would allow them to leave the country with the kids.
    Their only defense was than unnamed Haitian officials and a policeman named “Laurence” said it was ok.
    The group’s leaders thought that God was on their side and so the rules didn’t apply to them. That’s all in the original stories.

  • Bobby

    Bob, can you be any more specific as far as the Baptist Press story confirming much of the reporting from the time of the group’s arrest? That seems a bit vague.

    The “ill-conceived” and “woefully unprepared” descriptions also could benefit from a bit more factual elaboration. Specifically, what did the Idaho Baptists do that shows they believe the “rules didn’t apply to them”?

  • Bob Smietana


    Before they arriving in Haiti, “the group had made contact with a handful of orphanages, being told by the orphanage directors that they were overcrowded and had quake orphans who could be moved to the Dominican Republican.”

    What orphanages? Who are the directors there? Did the leaders of the Baptist group talk to anyone from the government, or from those involved in international adoption in Haiti who might know about the rules concerning child welfare. Nope. Did they ask what paperwork was need? No.
    Do they talk to the Florida Baptists doing disaster relief in Haiti, who’ve worked there for years? Nope.
    Think that qualifies as unprepared.

    Based on a contact with a handful of unknown orphanages, the group takes a bus into Port au Prince and tries to round up orphans. Surprise, surprise, surprise, no one will give the kids. Is this the fault of the group’s organizers? Nope, says Baptist Press.

    “But the first orphanage the group went to that day — despite being crowded and having children who were needing food — ‘completely changed’ its story when Thompson and the others showed up,” the story says.

    The group finds a second orphanage willing to turn over kids, but then surprise, Leonard the cop tells them that they need some paperwork. Oops. So they have to send the kids back to that orphanage.
    Again, a group that was prepared would have some idea of the requirements before trying to take kids out of the country.

    Then, “providentially,” they meet a pastor named, Jean Sainvil, who happens to run an orphanage and tells them that all they need is a custody transfer order. But Rev. Sainvil, who put 20 orphans on the bus, turns out to be less than reliable. None of the so-called orphans are really orphans. And his advice on what documents are needed is bogus.

    Finally the group has to goes to a consulate of the Dominican Republic for documents.
    “Silsby’s wait inside the consulate lasted so long — at least an hour — that the Baptists on the bus decided to feed the children,” the story says. Anyone who’s worked in the developing world knows that waiting is a part of life. Not these folks.

    They also end up as the story relates, sleeping on the bus because they’ve got no plan b. When their rescue kids from orphanages and take them to the DR plan runs into glitches, they’re stuck.

    All the way along, people tell them that their plan will not work. Orphanage directors, police, border patrol, tells then they can’t do it. But the group– unlike hundreds of other Baptist volunteers in the country at the time– don’t listen. They believe God wants them to take these kids out of country so the rules don’t apply.

    The villain in the story because UNICEF–unnamed UNICEF officials who apparently are in league with the devil.
    They find a groups of Americans trying to take kids across the border in a bus–kids who are not orphan, and for whom the group has not permission to have custody of, and the blow the whistle.

    That’s a way too long reply but you get my point.

  • blestou

    The facts in common support “unprepared,” but hardly “the rules don’t apply to us.”

  • Mel Coulter

    The song that greeted Laura Silsby at the Boise Airport was “Mighty to Save,” one of several that gave family members back home inspiration during the ordeal. Interestingly, the Atlanta worship leader who made it popular was…

    Laura Story. Thanks Laura.

    Regarding UNICEF… I believe there are many more undertows than even Pastor Thompson has mentioned. I don’t, for a minute, doubt that UNICEF was involved behind the curtains. We will continue to probe.

  • Mel Coulter

    Regarding post No. 10 above, yes, the American group was in contact with a number of government officials, who either had not seen the documents they referred to, or could not produce them. The group was advised on numerous occasions, including by government officials, that the documentation they had was sufficient.

    Much has been made about claims that the 33 children weren’t orphans at all. By whose definition? UNICEF’s published policies indicate that a child is considered an orphan even if that child has only one parent. A single orphan is one with one live parent; a double orphan is one who has lost both parents. Perhaps it’s time to stop building a case against the 10 American volunteers based on the term “orphan.” Then again, they were reassured by orphanage director(s) and even parents that some of the children were orphans. A more poignant question is “who do you trust?”

  • Bobby

    Then again, they were reassured by orphanage director(s) and even parents that some of the children were orphans.

    Thank you for your comments, Mel. Regarding the above statement, were the volunteers aware that at least some of the children had parents? The AP report indicates that some parents willingly turned over their children for the hope of a better life. But the Baptist Press article indicates that the volunteers were told that none of the children had parents.

  • Mel Coulter

    According to the American volunteers, they initially were told the children were orphans. Group leaders were careful to get the name of each child and the name of his/her closest relative. The group also had a paper signed by an orphanage director authorizing them to take children to a safer environment in the aftermath of the earthquake. Some parents wanted to send their child(ren) with the Americans so badly they misrepresented their status. An estimated 80 percent of Haitians are unable to read or write; and many of the children don’t have birth certificates. The Americans took every step they thought possible to ensure they were doing things correctly.

    Regarding UNICEF’s stand on Haiti children: the organization believes children should remain with parents or nearest relatives. Apparently even if that means keeping them in abject poverty. If I saw a burning apartment building and adults (perhaps parents) trying to pass children out of a window to safety, would I turn away, believing the children are better off with family members?

    I appreciate this opportunity for dialogue, but probably will not contribute further. Perhaps I’m too close to the situation. My best to all.

  • Bobby

    Thank you, Mel.

    I have not been to Haiti but have heard heartbreaking stories from Christians I know who work with orphanages there. I know one family who adopted a Haitian boy whose mother died during childbirth and whose father has so many older children that he sent the youngest to the orphanage and could not afford to care for him. As I understand it, the family adopted the boy with the father’s blessing and after going through a lengthy, ever-changing government process.

  • Carlos

    “According to the American volunteers” is pretty slim source against legal rulings.

    The context of crimes have been lost in the confusion around the earthquake and it muddies the waters for any serious conclusion the media are trying to make.

    Let me volunteer this, it is apparent that this group was trying to slip by authority in the midst of the catastrophe confusion and the next facts available have this group in unauthorized possession of many children with the intent of shipping them off to be adopted. Excuse me if it smells like kidnapping and child smuggling – some of the most vile crimes missionaries are constantly accused of. This group thought they could get away with something, but ended up tarnishing all American adoption causes and eroding the goodwill of all Americans.

    That the Haitian government has more important things to do, this group got away almost scott-free. I only wish American authorities are investigating the incident and we don’t depend on “American volunteers” to proclaim innocence when Haitian courts found guilt.

  • blestou

    How is it “apparent” that they were “trying to slip by authority”?

  • Mel Coulter

    Re. Post 17 by Carlos

    How do you conclude the group’s intent was to take children off to be adopted? That was never the intent of the group. If the Haitian government chose to put a temporary hold on adoptions, it did so to adhere to its own, newly enacted presidential proclamation, not a long-standing law. And to use Haitian “legal rulings” as a standard is very shaky, at best. If officials were convinced the group was trying to kidnap or traffic children, those charges would not have been dropped against all 10 Americans. Instead, only Laura Silsby was found guilty of trying to “arrange irregular travel,” a law imposed on Haitians by dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier to curb mass exodus from the country in the 1980s.

    This group’s intents have been so widely misconstrued and misrepresented, based on news media reports that emanate from the Haitian government, the truth will never be universally accepted. People choose to believe what they choose to believe. I guess that’s where we have to leave it.