PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Six U.S.-bound orphans seized by Haitian police despite having their papers in order remained in a government-run nursery more than two days later, the orphanage director said.
The seizure of the orphans and the brief detention of their escorts Saturday came amid fears that foreigners are exploiting post-earthquake chaos to illegally take children from the country — a perception fueled by an ongoing case involving 10 U.S. Baptist missionaries.
“The youngest has developed diarrhea and is very dehydrated,” said Jan Bonnema of Prinsburg, Minnesota, founder and director with her husband, Bud, of the Children of The Promise orphanage, where the six children originated.
Bonnema, whose orphanage is located in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, said late Monday that the children had been bound for the United States via Miami, where their adoptive parents were waiting for them.
Police detained the children and the four women escorting them, including the orphanage’s Irish field director and one American adoptive mother, Sarah Thacker of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, as they were about to depart this earthquake-shattered country from Port-au-Prince airport on Saturday, according to Bonnema.
“They were just inside the terminal. They hadn’t gone through immigration,” she said in a telephone interview from Minnesota, because they were waiting for U.S. Embassy staff to come with adoption papers signed by Haiti’s prime minister.
“A large group of Haitians attacked them,” Bonnema added. “They were swearing at them and saying, ‘These are Haitian babies. You cannot take them. You are child trafficking.’”
U.S. and Haitian officials had earlier confirmed the detentions but without providing details.
The children, ages 1 to 5, and women were all detained by police, and the women were released several hours later from a nearby police station after U.S. diplomats intervened.
But the children remained in a government nursery in a tent camp on Monday night, Bonnema said.
“Our staff were not allowed to stay with the children,” she said. “They’re very traumatized.”
She said U.S. and Haitian officials were expected to meet Tuesday to resolve the situation.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has intervened on behalf of the women. She told The Associated Press that the orphanage is legitimate and said the adopting families in Minnesota have been working with her office.
“The main thing now is to make sure the kids are reunited with the women and get to the families that have been waiting for them,” she said.
The incident occurred after 10 Baptists were arrested trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border to the Dominican Republic without the proper paperwork.
The missionaries said the children were orphaned in the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, but the AP established that they all had parents who willingly gave their children up in hopes they would get an education and a better life.
A judge released eight of the missionaries last week, but leader Laura Silsby, 40, and her assistant, Charisa Coulter, 24, remain jailed as the investigating judge interviews officials at the orphanages the two visited before the quake.
Bonnema said all the orphans in the Children of The Promise orphanage “have been in our care since they were infants.”
She said most are “true orphans or they’ve been abandoned.”
UNICEF says Haiti had some 380,000 orphans prior to the quake — nearly 4 percent of its population — and an estimated half were not true orphans. Child trafficking is a major problem.
After the quake, the government halted all adoptions by foreigners that had not been approved beforehand — and said children only could leave the country with papers signed by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
Bonnema said Bellerive had indeed signed the proper papers.
“The Haitian police didn’t believe that it was the Haitian prime minister’s signature,” she said.
Associated Press Writers Michelle Faul in Haiti and Sarah Rafi in Chicago contributed to this report.