Topeka missionary: Group didn't know Haitian kids had parents

A Topeka youth pastor and nine other American missionaries jailed in Haiti for trying to take children out of the earthquake-ravaged nation didn't know the children still had parents, he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Drew Culberth also acknowledged he wasn't involved in making arrangements for the 33 children and didn't speak directly to officials at orphanages who turned them over to the missionaries. But Culberth said his group was told by the orphanages that the children had no parents.

The AP later determined all the children had parents. Culberth was among eight of the missionaries released last week after spending nearly three weeks in jail on child kidnapping charges. The group's leader and her assistant still are detained.

He said one child picked up by the group was returned to parents when the his group learned they still were alive.

Culberth granted an interview to AP, but wouldn't discuss some details of what happened. His attorney, Caleb Stegall, broke into the interview to prevent Culberth from discussing matters Stegall said remain under review in Haiti.

“That was our understanding, that the Haitian officials at the orphanages had said that all the children had no mother or father, and that's when they were handed over,” Culberth said, without elaborating. “If we had known that they had parents, they would have been given back to their parents.”

Culberth said he'd be willing to return to Haiti and said the nation still needs Americans' help and prayers.

“I'd like to encourage anybody else that's considering a mission trip to not let this to be a deterrent,” he said.

Echoing previous assertions by group leader Laura Silsby, Culberth said the missionaries planned to transport the children by bus to the neighboring Dominican Republic and care for them in a hotel. He said he spent two days in the Dominican Republic, helping purchase supplies and do maintenance on the building first.

Disclosures that parents willingly gave their children up in hopes they would get an education and a better life led a judge in Haiti to release eight of the missionaries, including Culberth.

“We know that the court performed a thorough investigation, gathered all the facts, determined that at least with respect to Drew, there had been no wrongdoing,” Stegall said.

Silsby and her assistant, Charisa Coulter, remain in Haiti.

“They need our prayers, and we're just going to let the court system run its course with them, the same way they did with us,” Culberth said.

Culberth said the five male missionaries who shared a cell in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, were allowed to mingle with Haitian prisoners in the neighboring cell. He said the groups read their Bibles — in English and French to each other— and sang hymns in each other's languages.

He also took notes on scraps of paper the jail allowed him and the other missionaries to have. One note contained a long list of Bible verses.

With a pencil, Culberth jotted “Haiti 2010” in his compact firefighter's Bible next to some verses, including Proverbs 16:9, “A man's heart plans his way but the Lord determines his steps.”