Snatching Babies For Jesus
On January 29, a little more than two
weeks after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti, 10 American
missionaries were arrested while attempting to take 33 Haitian children
across the border into the Dominican Republic. The group, comprised of
church members from Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, lacked the proper
documents to transport the children.
The group’s leader, Laura Silsby, had
recently founded the New Life Children’s Refuge, a ministry to help orphaned
children in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After the quake, Silsby’s
congregation—Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian—agreed to co-sponsor
the Refuge’s Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission. The plan, outlined on the
website was to bus as many orphans as they could find to the
Dominican Republic and to house them in a converted hotel until a proper
orphanage could be built.
“In this chaos the government is in
right now, we were just trying to do the right thing,” Silsby told AP
reporter Frank Bajak January 31. “Our hearts were in the right place.”
Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive
did not see it that way. As far as he was concerned, the missionaries were
“kidnappers” who “knew what they were doing,” Ginger Thompson reported in
the New York Times February 2.
Haiti has a troubling history of child
trafficking, and many in Haiti feared that the quake’s destruction of
infrastructure and displacement of families would make children even more
vulnerable to traffickers. For that reason, the government halted all
adoptions that had not been put in place before the quake, and required all
documents permitting children to leave the country to carry the prime
Thanks to on-the-ground reporting by
the Times and AP, it quickly became clear that the children all had
at least one living relative.
On February 3, the parents told the AP
they had “surrendered their children on January 28, two days after a local
orphanage worker acting on behalf of the Baptists convened nearly the entire
village of about 500 people on a dirt soccer pitch to present the Americans’
The same day, two of the parents,
Kisnel and Florence Antoine, told Thompson that they had willingly
surrendered their children because the missionaries offered them educational
opportunities they could not provide.
The Antoines said they were promised
that they could visit their children in the Dominican Republic, and that the
children would likewise be free to return home for visits. Yet while the
missionaries told them their children would not be put up for adoption, on
its website the New Life Children’s Refuge offered sea-side villas for
visiting families wishing to adopt, along with grants for “loving Christian
parents” who would otherwise not be able to afford to do so.
On February 4, the missionaries were
officially charged with child abduction and criminal association. Soon
thereafter, the media began turning up information that cast their leader in
a dubious light.
A February 4 article in the Idaho
Statesman by Katy Moeller carried the headline, “Laura Silsby, a local
missionary to Haiti, left a trail of financial woes in Idaho,” and the
tagline, “The Boise woman has a pattern of flouting laws.” Moeller
chronicled a dubious past that included eight civil lawsuits, 14 unpaid wage
claims, a house foreclosure, and traffic violations.
To make matters worse for Silsby, eight
of her fellow missionaries—all but her close friend and nanny Charisa
Coulter—signed a note stating that she had misled them. Writing in the
February 8 New York Times, Marc Lacey and Ian Urbina reported that
the eight had handed a scribbled note to an NBC News producer that read, “We
only came as volunteers. We had NOTHING to do with any documents and have
been lied to.”
On February 9, CNN’s Karl Penhaul
reported that the missionaries had made an earlier attempt to take 46
children out of the Haiti. A police officer who wished to remain anonymous
told Penhaul that he had stopped them on January 26, ordered the children
off the bus, and directed Silsby to the Dominican Embassy.
Just when it seemed that the case
couldn’t get any shadier, the El Salvadorian police recognized the group’s
yarmulke-wearing legal adviser, Jorge Puello, as a man wanted in their
country for sex trafficking. On February 15, the Times’ Lacey and
Urbina reported that the El Salvadorian police had uncovered Puello’s
trafficking ring the previous May after raiding the house where the young
women were kept and arresting his wife and another man.
Tied to the operation by documents
found at the house, Puello—born in New York and holding joint U.S. and
Dominican citizenship—was on the run until he appeared on behalf of the
missionaries. Claiming at first to be a victim of mistaken identity, he
later admitted he was the man wanted in El Salvador, but insisted he was
It turned out that Puello had called
one of the Idaho churches two days after the missionaries were arrested and
offered them legal representation free of charge. Two relatives gave their
consent, and he began acting as the group’s lawyer, even though he lacked a
law degree. Bernard Saint-Vil, the judge handling the case, said he intended
to question Silsby further about any connection she might have with him.
Indeed, it seemed like too much of a
coincidence for there not to be a connection between the two. Why
else would the man risk exposing himself by assuming a prominent role in a
case with international media coverage?
“Somewhere, there’s a story in which
these things do make sense, because they occurred,” the American journalist,
filmmaker, and activist Anne-Christine d’Adesky wrote in a post on her blog
Haiti Vox, March 10. “Could it be the story that is the ugliest? The one
that suggests Silsby got hooked up with traffickers, wittingly or
unwittingly, because those are the people who know how to quietly move other
people across borders? Because she, like others, was motivated by money?”
As the story grabbed more and more
media attention, prominent Baptist groups and leaders offered their prayers
and support—and made sure to distance themselves from the missionaries.
Ethan Cole of the Christian Post reported on February 5 that the
Baptist World Alliance (BWA) had assured its member bodies, the media, and
the public “that neither the team of missionaries nor their churches are
affiliated with the BWA or any of its member bodies.”
Similarly, the American Baptist
Churches USA posted a notice on its website expressing concern that news
reports referring to the jailed missionaries as “American Baptists” might
“create confusion among our constituents.”
As for the missionaries own Southern
Baptist Convention (SBC), on February 3 President and CEO Morris Chapman
supplied a first-person commentary to the Baptist Press entitled
“Prayer for the detainees in Haiti,” in which he defended their intentions
as “driven by the true selflessness of altruism” but pointed out, “While we
encourage our churches to work through the North American Mission Board, a
local church can mount its own relief efforts without coordination with the
Both Central Valley Baptist Church and
the New Life Children’s Refuge were such uncoordinated groups. “In their
zeal to render assistance to 33 children entrusted to their care,” Chapman
wrote, “these ten volunteers failed to secure proper authorization to
transport them across the border to temporary housing in the Dominican
The disclaimer did not impress former
Houston Chronicle religion editor Louis Moore, who, in a February 4
post on his blog “Louis Moore on Religion,” reproached the denomination for
encouraging congregations to witness across the globe without providing
training or support. “Some ranking SBC leader, who has been preaching the
‘go’ message,” quipped Moore, “ought to step up to the plate and volunteer
to be imprisoned in the place of the 10 people now being held in that
On February 18, Judge Saint-Vil
released eight of the 10 missionaries, but kept Silsby and Coulter in jail
for further questioning. Four weeks later, he released Coulter as well.
Then, on April 27, Saint-Vil dropped
the charges of kidnapping and criminal association against Silsby because
the children’s parents had testified that they had given them over freely.
On May 17, he found her guilty and sentenced her to time served. Later that
day she landed in Boise.
“It feels incredible,” she told KTVB.
“It feels incredible. I just give praise to my God. I thank him for bringing
When last heard of, Jorge Puello was in
Santo Domingo, awaiting a decision of the Dominican Supreme Court on whether
he would be extradited to the U.S. or to El Salvador on human trafficking