PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten U.S. Baptists detained trying to take 33 children out of earthquake-shattered Haiti without government permission say they were just trying to do the right thing, applying Christian principles to save Haitian children.
But their "Orphan Rescue Mission" is striking nerves in a country that has long suffered from child trafficking and foreign interventions, and where much of the aid is delivered in ways that challenge Haiti's religious traditions.
The Americans include Drew Culberth, 34, a father of four from Topeka who is a firefighter and a part-time youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church.
His friend, Joel Culberson, said a relative who leads a church in Iowa had asked Culberth to go on the trip. Bethel Baptist pastor James Keller said the church gave him time off for the trip, knowing his EMT training would prove valuable.
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Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive on Sunday told the Associated Press that the group was arrested and is under judicial investigation "because it is illegal trafficking of children and we won't accept that."
The government and established child welfare agencies are trying to slow Haitian adoptions amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold.
Without proper documents and concerted efforts to track down their parents, they could be forever separated from family members able and willing to care for them. Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
The orphanage where the children were later taken said some of the kids have living parents, who were apparently told the children were going on a holiday from the post-quake misery.
The church group's own mission statement said it planned to spend only hours in the devastated capital, quickly identifying children without immediate families and busing them to a rented hotel in the Dominican Republic without getting permission from the Haitian government.
Whatever their intentions, other child welfare organizations in Haiti said the plan was foolish at best.
"The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake," said Deb Barry, a protection expert at Save the Children, which wants a moratorium on new adoptions. "The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labeled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high."
The church members, most from Idaho, said they were only trying to rescue abandoned and traumatized children.
"In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing," the group's spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, told the AP from inside Haiti's judicial police headquarters, where she and others were being held until a hearing today.
Officials said they lacked the proper documents for the children, whose names were written on pink tape on their shirts.
The children, ages 2 months to 12 years old, were taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages, where spokesman George Willeit said they arrived "very hungry, very thirsty, some dehydrated."
"One (8-year-old) girl was crying, and saying, 'I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.' And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that," Willeit said.
The orphanage was working Sunday to reunite the children with their families, joining a concerted effort by the Haitian government, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations.
In Idaho, the Rev. Clint Henry denied that his Central Valley Baptist Church had anything to do with child trafficking and said he didn't believe reports that some of the children had parents.