PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten Americans were detained by Haitian police on Saturday as they tried to bus 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic, allegedly without proper documents.
The Baptist church members from Idaho called it a "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission," meant to save abandoned children from the chaos following Haiti's earthquake. Their plan was to scoop up 100 kids and take them by bus to a rented hotel at a beach resort in the Dominican Republic, where they planned to establish an orphanage.
Whether they realized it or not, these Americans – the first known to be taken into custody since the Jan. 12 earthquake – put themselves in the middle of a firestorm in Haiti, where government leaders have suspended adoptions amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to child trafficking.
"In this chaos the government is in right now we were just trying to do the right thing," the group's leader, Laura Silsby told The Associated Press at the judicial police headquarters in the capital, where the Americans were being held pending a Monday hearing before a judge.
Silsby said they only had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children. She said her group obtained them through a well-known Haitian pastor named Jean Sanbil of the Sharing Jesus Ministries.
Silsby, 40, of Boise, Idaho, was asked if she didn't consider it naive to cross the border without adoption papers at a time when Haitians are so concerned about child trafficking. "By no means are we any part of that. That's exactly what we are trying to combat," she said.
Social Affairs Minister Yves Cristallin told reporters the Americans were suspected of taking part in an illegal adoption scheme.
Cristallin said the 33 children were lodged late Saturday at an SOS Children's Village outside of Port-au-Prince. SOS Children's Villages is a global nonprofit based in Austria.
Many children in Haitian orphanages aren't actually orphans but have been abandoned by family who cannot afford to care for them. Advocates both here and abroad caution that with so many people unaccounted for, adoptions should not go forward until it can be determined that the children have no relatives who can raise them.
UNICEF and other NGOs have been registering children who may have been separated from their parents. Relief workers are locating children at camps housing the homeless around the capital and are placing them in temporary shelters while they try to locate their parents or a more permanent home.
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti sent consular officials, who met with the detained Americans and gave them bug spray and MREs to eat, according to Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and 18-year-old daughter were being held.
"They have to go in front of a judge on Monday," Lankford told The Associated Press.
"There are allegations of child trafficking and that really couldn't be farther from the truth," he added. The children "were going to get the medical attention they needed. They were going to get the clothes and the food and the love they need to be healthy and to start recovering from the tragedy that just happened."
Haiti has imposed new controls on adoptions since the earthquake, which left thousands of children separated from their parents or orphaned. The government now requires Prime Minister Max Bellerive to personally authorize the departure of any child as a way to prevent child trafficking.
Silsby said they had documents from the Dominican government, but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities before taking 33 children from 2 months to 12 years old to the border, where Haitian police stopped them Friday evening. She said the children were brought to the pastor by distant relatives, and that the only ones to be put up for adoption would be those without close family to care for them.
The 10 Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, as well as people from Texas and Kansas. Idaho friends and relatives have been in touch with them through text messages and phone calls, Lankford said.
"The plan was never to go adopt all these kids. The plan was to create this orphanage where kids could live. And kids get adopted out of orphanages. People go down and they're going to fall in love with these kids, and many of these kids will end up getting adopted."
"Of course I'm concerned for my wife and my daughter," he added. "They were hoping to make a difference and be able to help those kids."
The group described their plans on a Web site where they also asked for tax-deductible contributions, saying they would "gather" 100 orphans and bus them to the Dominican resort of Cabarete, before building a more permanent orphanage in the Dominican town of Magante.
"Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon our hearts the need to go now versus waiting until the permanent facility is built," the group wrote.
Associated Press Writers Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, and Hope Yen in Washington, contributed to this story.