UPDATED: Naivete and Best Intentions or Trafficking in Children For Religious Purposes?

The term "trafficking in children" conjures up the worst of all possible scenarios…bad people taking children away from their families for nefarious purposes, such as the labor or sex trade.

But can children be trafficked for religious purposes by deeply misguided people who think they are doing "good?" 

According to the United Nations, human trafficking is defined as:

recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt
of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other
forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception,
of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability
or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to
achieve the consent of a person having control over another
person, for the purpose of exploitation". 

As I hear more about the story of the group of Baptist church members from two congregations in Idaho that attempted to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic without papers and absent any legal process, it strikes me that in fact they were trafficking these children for religious purposes.  

The first reports on the group suggested that the children were orphans and that the American Baptist group was "just trying to help."  According to the Washington Post:

One of the detained Baptists, Laura Silsby, told the Associated Press
that the group had not obtained the proper Haitian documents to take
the children. But she explained that the group was "just trying to do
the right thing" to help.

But the road to hell is, as they say, paved with good intentions, and this response struck me, from the beginning, as deeply naive and even dangerous.  Even if the children were orphaned and even if the country was devastated by an earthquake, you do not–you can not–just parachute in from Idaho and take children out of their country with no process, no permission, no legal review, no effort to find or communicate with any living relatives just because you think it is the right thing to do.

It turns out, however, that most if not all of the children were not orphans and in fact have relatives–parents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents–alive  in Haiti.  Some had been separated from their families in the aftermath of the earthquake, some may have lost one or both parents but still had extended family.  Some had been brought by their own parents to orphanages where, the parents apparently hoped, they would get priority for scarce food supplies. In the aftermath of such a devastating national disaster, people do what they can to survive until they can regain a stable footing.  Placing children in orphanages is one such strategy.

But the Baptist group went one further, because they were actually in direct contact with the parents of some of the children. 

Several parents of the children in Callebas, a quake-wracked Haitian
village near the capital, told The Associated Press Wednesday they had
handed over their children willingly because they were unable to feed
or clothe their children and the American missionaries promised to give
them a better life.

What possessed the American Baptist group to try take them away from parents likely still in shock, and out of the country so swiftly, without permission from authorities?  Religious beliefs, it seems, drove this group to feel it was above the law, but also to take these children for the purpose of converting the children to their own form of Christianity.

About half of all Haitians identify as Roman Catholic,
about 15 percent as Baptist, 8 percent Pentecostal and 3 percent
Adventist, with the rest identifying as Muslim, Christian Scientist,
Mormon or other religious affilations.

The majority of Haitians, however, practice voodoo alongside
Christianity (most commonly with
Catholicism), and the voodoo religion keeps a strong hold on the
beliefs, traditions, and worship practices of the population.  In
short, voodoo holds that all living things–from people to trees and
plants–have spirits.  According to a report by the U.S. State Department, voodoo is
frowned upon by the elite, conservative Catholics, and

The voodoo religion, adopted from practices in Africa brought to Haiti by slaves, is one aspect of "animist" religious practices which the Catholic church and evangelicals have long sought to banish from Africa, Haiti and elsewhere, because they are seen as incompatible with true Christianity.

But "true Christianity" is what the American Baptist group wanted these children to practice. For example, a flier used for fund raising purposes by the group in Idaho states that:

NLCR is praying and seeking people who have a heart
for God and a desire to share God’s love with these precious children,
helping them heal and find new life in Christ.

The flier also suggests this may not have been the only trip they intended to take children out of Haiti. Their flier states:

Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon
our hearts the need to go now vs. waiting until the permanent facility is built. He has provided an interim solution in nearby Cabarete, where we will be leasing a 45 room hotel and converting it into an orphanage until the building of the NLCR is complete.  This interim location will enable us to provide a loving environment for up to 150 children, from infants to 12 years old.

Moreover, the New York Times story from today reports that 

of [the] parents said the Baptists had promised simply to educate the
youngsters in the Dominican Republic, and said the children would be
able to return to Haiti to visit their families.

Was it clear to the parents what exactly these missionaries had in mind?  It doesn’t seem so.  Isn’t it a form of coercion to ask people so devastated by a tragedy
to given up their children for some unknown "better life" without offering to better their lives right there?  Why take them away?  And if your intention is to bring these children to the DR and put them up for adoption to "loving Christian homes," how does telling their parents they are just going to get an education and can "come back to Haiti to visit" make you much different than the labor or sex trafficker who promises a woman that she is going to find lucrative work abroad in a new industry, only to be trafficked for other purposes?  While these children might be adopted to "good homes" that does not obviate the lies, deception and abduction in which the group engaged to secure access to these children.

These children were clearly being abducted for the purposes of religious conversion, a strategy that may have been indirectly propelled by a broader religious movement to expand adoption internationally for the purposes of religious conversion.

A report in the Associated Baptist Press, for example, quotes Russell Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and
dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary, as decrying the efforts of the Idaho Baptist group to "remove children from earthquake-stricken Haiti without proper
documentation [because it] could give a black eye to a budding movement of
evangelicals who view adoption as a means of spreading the gospel."

ABP relays Moore’s reaction upon hearing the news of the 10 Americans being held in Haiti:

"I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to cause all kinds of derision to
the orphan-care movement and to what the Holy Spirit is doing in
churches all across America and all over the world in having a heart
for orphans,’" Moore said, sitting in as guest host for seminary president Al Mohler.

Last year Moore published a book titled Adopted for Life
calling on Christians to adopt children as a "Great Commission
priority." On Feb. 26-27, the seminary in Louisville, Ky., is
sponsoring an "Adopting for Life" conference aimed at creating "a culture of adoption" in families and churches.

"The Bible tells us that human families are reflective of an eternal fatherhood (Eph. 3:14-15)," says a website
promoting the event. "We know, then, what human fatherhood ought to
look like on the basis of how Father God behaves toward us. But the
reverse is also true. We see something of the way our God is fatherly
toward us through our relationships with our own human fathers. And so
Jesus tells us that in our human father’s provision and discipline we
get a glimpse of God’s active love for us (Matt. 7:9-11; cf. Heb.
12:5-7). The same is at work in adoption."

This is sensitive territory. Untold numbers of children languish in orphanages in countries throughout the world, waiting for a safe and secure home. And when a child is without parents or any family and has no recourse, it is assumed that the best thing for that child is to be placed in a loving home through adoption.

But the link between adoption and prosyletization is troubling.  In Haiti, for example, I would imagine that parents, rather than being so bereft of food, shelter, water, health care and other profoundly basic needs that they feel compelled to give their children to orphanages or to strangers promising them a "better home," never to see them again, would prefer to be assisted right there to rebuild their lives, maintain their families intact, raise their children according to their own traditions and see them thrive.

But learning about their own heritage and history is not part of the "gospel-driven" religious movement.  Moore, for example, is the father of two children adopted from a Russian orphanage. 

In his book, Moore said
when he and his wife were adopting their boys they were encouraged by
social workers and family friends to "teach the children about their
cultural heritage."

"We have done just that," he wrote.

"Now, what most people probably meant by this counsel is for us to
teach our boys Russian folk tales and Russian songs, observing Russian
holidays, and so forth," Moore explained. "But as we see it, that’s not
their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they
are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home. We teach them
about their heritage, yes, but their heritage as Mississippians."

Moore and others, therefore, have strongly criticized the tactics of the Idaho Baptist group in large part because they are concerned about the backlash against their own efforts to expand "gospel-driven" adoption. . 

"I’m worried that this news is going to give a black eye to the
orphan-care movement in the same way that some of the really
rambunctious, lawbreaking aspects of the right-to-life protester
movement did to the pro-life movement," Moore said on Monday’s program.

"[It] is going to cause people to
have increased skepticism toward what I think is a genuine movement of
the Spirit of God among God’s people." 

Similar sentiments were expressed in an interview conducted by Moore with Jedd Medefind, president of the
Christian Alliance for Orphans, and David Platt,
senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.

Medefind, a former aide to President George W. Bush who led the
White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, now heads
an alliance of orphan-serving organizations and churches promoting
Christian orphan and foster care and adoption and adoption ministry.

The group’s mission statement says
it exists to "motivate and unify the body of Christ to live out God’s
mandate to care for the orphan." The Alliance’s vision statement is
"every orphan experiencing God’s unfailing love and knowing Jesus as

Its easy to get caught up in the moment of devastation to say that rescuing children by taking them "away" from their parents and their country is the first, best response. According to the New York Times,  for example, the
Americans, their lawyers and members of their churches have said they
are innocent of any wrongdoing, and said the imbroglio was "a huge

In an interview earlier this week, Ms. Silsby said
the group had come to Haiti to rescue children orphaned by the
earthquake, and that “our hearts were in the right place.”

But was it really, given their own materials?  And what does that really mean when you have a religious agenda for children–many of them with living family– who are being taken away from everything they know to serve your own notion of what is right in the world and your own notion of "God?" 

"The Real crux of the issue," writes Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, is this:

These ten do-gooders walked into
the trap many well meaning white evangelical Christians fall into:
those poor brown/black/yellow/red people need My help. Jesus wants Me to help them. To much of White American Evangelical Christianity the We often means Me. It’s what God Called Me to do. It’s what God would want Me to do. The problem with the Me mentality of much of conservative Evangelical Christianity is that they often can’t see the We—the
people of Haiti—who love their kids so much they’re willing to let some
white people who claim to be “Christians” take them away to what they
promise will be “a better life.”

It is unquestionably true that the majority of adoptive parents raise their children in their own faith.  It is a different issue, however, to me at least, when you seek to rescue children, legally or not, for the express purpose of expanding the number of believers in your faith….removing all trace of their original heritage. It strikes me as similarly troubling to providing aid to people in need in order to bring them into your "religious fold."

And it also seems that similarly to those who call themselves "pro-life’ but perpetuate violence against medical doctors and their clients, an approach that suggests the "religious ends" justify the means in removing children from a country will only lead to more coercion, abduction, and falsehood in the effort to "rescue" children from a culture and a religion that does not comport with your own.

To me that feels like trafficking children for religious purposes.


Veronica Arreola wrote about the same subject here.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

Follow Jodi Jacobson on twitter: @jljacobson

  • debrigard

    You are quite right in pointing out that, without proper controls, adoptions motivated by religion can be just as abusive as any other type of adoption. The motives of the prospective parents towards their adoptees are only part of the equation, the other part is the effect this has on the social fabric of the child-exporting country when children are taken under various conditions of exploitation and duress. The proof of that is the experience of adoptions in Guatemala, a country that became a favorite for adoptions because there was “an abundance” of children, in large part because there was so little government “red tape.” It was all largely left to “private industry,” and soon enough that industry became big business. You would regularly see the adopting parents’ well-meaning middle-America faces in airplanes, and at hotels specially set up to accommodate them. Sweet as they were, what developed to supply their needs was not so sweet. Numerous “orphanages” sprang in the capital to supply the demand. These businesses in turn would maintain agents in distant rural Mayan villages whose job was to supply them with “orphans.” Sometimes the papers indicating parental consent (or dead parents) were falsified, or signed by someone who was actually not the parent. But sometimes the actual parents would sign, either because of their difficult circumstances (since many of the Christian churches, Catholic or Evangelical, frown on birth control, there is no such thing as planned parenthood) or the payment for the baby would be seen as a source of family money, to the detriment of the wife, whose economic function in the family would degenerate into something akin to a breeding cow. Some of this surfaced 3 years ago when the AP newswire reported a lynching of a visiting tourist in a distant village. The tourist was lynched because the way she looked at a child led the villagers to believe she was one of those nefarious “agents” out to, effectively, steal their kids. Bear in mind that the adoptive parents, operating through an system of lawyers and intermediaries, would be spared all these gory details. It would be the lawyers who would do all the paperwork aided by corrupt officials eager to satisfy their moneyed clients by not looking too closely into the details of how these children came to be orphans. Two things brought this abusive situation under some semblance of control. (1) UNICEF propagated a world-wide standardized legal framework for adoptions, and countries were expected to change their laws accordingly, and the US agreed to abide by that convention, and (2) because of that, when Guatemala, under the pressure of lobbyists from the adoption industry, showed a lack of willingness to comply, the US threatened to cut off all adoptions by its returning citizens. If it had not been for that strong hand, a collusion of interests would have simply perpetuated this abusive system to this day. So, to conclude: Kudos to the Haitian government for putting an early brake on unauthorized export of children for purposes of adoption, before things would get out of hand. Now people will have to be a little more careful. Adoptions will be slower, but parents who adopt children under a well-controlled system have the peace of mind that their adoptions have been properly sanctioned and are not detrimental to the social fabric of the country from which they draw their children.

  • liberaldem

    is paved with good intentions.

    Even though these people thought they were operating with good intentions, to fly into a disaster zone without doing any research, any attempt to determine what the policies of Haiti regarding international adoptions is was at the least misguided and reckless.

  • crowepps

    It hard to think of a WORSE way to treat children after a horrible natural disaster than for strangers to gather them up without much preparation, put them on a bus for a long trip, and drive them away from everything they have ever known. The sense of dislocation would be traumatic, their desire to find their ‘real family’ would be enormous, and so far as I am aware from the news reports while these people may be sincere Christians none of them has any training in social work or adoption or counseling or any knowledge of what is involved in running an orphanage.


    New Life Children’s Refuge incorporated in Idaho in November of last year, had not yet purchased any buildings or started any programs, although it had rented a hotel at a beach resort, and apparently had very little idea what they were doing since they weren’t even aware that papers were necessary to take the children across the border.


    It does not matter what the adults were thinking or whether they had good intentions or whether they were ‘sincere Christians’, what matters is what the children were thinking, and apparently at least some of the children felt they were being kidnapped.


    This isn’t any different than a babysitter deciding that the parents of the child aren’t adequate, she can provide a better home for the child herself, and packing the child up and driving off.

  • faultroy

    I’ve followed this from the beginning and what I know is that we really do not have the full story. Rather than jump to ridiculous conclusions and make false inferences, why don’t we all just be quiet and let the facts unfold. And by doing so, you could write a story that is not filled with insufficient information, invalid conclusions and misinformation. –Talking about putting the Cart before the Horse!!!!

  • jenns-hubby

    I have to agree with faultroy on at least waiting for further information. Here are people who willing said “Take my child and save him”. I’m surprised we haven’t seen an interview with any of the parents, actually I am not surprised. I am willing to bet there hasn’t been an interview with the parents because they would back up what this group is saying.

    And getting “documents” to take them out of a disaster area? Where exactly were they going to go and get these documents in the middle of all this, when riots are breaking out and there is not much left of this place.

    When we were hit by Katrina, my first thought was to get my wife and little girl out and away from the disaster area. I have no doubt that these people obviously trusted this group to tend to their children and provide them with a better life than living amongst the shattered buildings and dreams. Especially considering people were revolting at the food and water lines and creating havoc.

    No offense, but your article is very one sided.

  • colleen

    I understand that the Haitian government has decided to retain all ten of them and that the SoS has announced that this is a matter for the Haitian justice system. Good on both counts.
    The normal reaction, when confronted with a natural disaster in a densely populated area, is to help the survivors by providing food and water and medical care, not by coveting their children, lying to the parents and children about their intentions and trying to take them out of the country illegally. Perhaps these folks will serve as an example to others.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • crowepps

    When we were hit by Katrina, my first thought was to get my wife and little girl out and away from the disaster area.

    You were, I hope, planning to get them BACK, weren’t you?


    The whole point of why people are outraged is that the parents are in a horrific situation, they are easy to persuade into any slim chance which might give their children an advantage, and a group appears and says they will care for those children and then whisks them away with the TWIN purposes of a) ‘saving’ them physically and b) CHANGING THEIR RELIGION for the ‘correct’ evangelical one.


    After Katrina, what would your reaction have been to finding out that the persons who evacuated your child weren’t planning to allow you to reclaim that child because they felt your religion wasn’t good enough and that instead your child was going to be adopted by a ‘good Buddhist family’ so she could be ‘saved’?


    These people may be totally pure-hearted, they may have had absolutely pure intentions by their lights, but as a Christian myself I am extremely offended by the defense being offered for their actions which sums up as ‘they are Christians and therefore they couldn’t possibly have done anything WRONG’.  The assumption that because a person is Christian then ipso facto all their whims and impulses must have been directly motivated by God is a delusion that has generated horrible messes over the years.

  • prochoiceferret

    I’ve followed this from the beginning and what I know is that we really do not have the full story. Rather than jump to ridiculous conclusions and make false inferences, why don’t we all just be quiet and let the facts unfold. And by doing so, you could write a story that is not filled with insufficient information, invalid conclusions and misinformation. –Talking about putting the Cart before the Horse!!!!

    Oh, if only you had been around to make a similar such comment to this story!

  • jenns-hubby

    Maybe I missed it in one of the articles, but I do not recall ever seeing a point where they said they could not see their children.  The group told them where they were taking them.  I could see the "fear of disbelief" from someone not in that situation.  I believe they even stated who they were and what they were doing.  But, I can not recall seeing that they told the families they would never see them again.


    Now, I understand that there is a "fear" of that happening.  And perhaps, if these people had gotten documentation saying "these kids are with us" then there would be a worse possibility that they could deny those rights.  Yet, that is taking a great deal into account that did not happen.  I feel like this article has jumped to a far side and assumed the worse, that was my feelings about it.


    And while I would be furiated that if my girl was taken and not returned to me or my wife.  I would much rather have a child grow up with a knowledge and understanding of all cultures and not be single minded or limited.  But, to answer your question, yes, I would have a problem with them trying to keep her.  No, to teaching her.

  • suburbangrrrl

    As an adoptive parent, I am *not* willing to give these so-called well-intentioned people a pass. It doesn’t matter what their intentions were or how holy they consider their mission. They violated the rights of these children and exploited their parents’ suffering. They operated without any official paperwork. If they are an adoption agency are they licensed with the state of Idaho and recognized by the U.S. State Dept? Even if they are their motives and actions are unconscionable. These children were exploited. It has been reported elsewhere (a recent Nation article) that some Christian agencies coerce birthmothers into placing their babies for adoption. Many of these birthmothers are referred from so-called crisis pregnancy centers. I sincerely hope that no pressure is placed on the State Dept to assist these people in escaping prosecution in Haiti. Haiti is acting as an appropriate guardian for displaced children by stopping all adoptions during this crisis.
    Adoption outside of one’s culture/homeland is always the last resort. An exhaustive search for a child’s parents must occur first. Children should be first placed with other family members if possible and remain in their own country. Children’s needs come first, not the religious needs of missionaries. Yes, this is traffiking.

  • jodi-jacobson

    interviews with several parents, if you care to search for them including via the New York Times, and on NPR.


    Your disdain for "paperwork" is remarkable.  Legitimate documentation signed by the correct people may seem inconvenient to you, but children are not a commodity to be traded among and between countries.


    In fact, the people who came to Haiti to take these children had planned to do this *before* teh earthquake, are not registered as a legal adoption agency or childcare agency in the United States, nor are they registered for international adoption, nor are they registered with the Haitian government.  In short, they believe themselves to be acting on some celestial order that exempts them from any need to follow the very clear legal and diplomatic procedures in place to protect children in the first place.  This is exploitative, and these conditions are the very same conditions that would be sought by traffickers….loose and easy access to vulnerable children.


    Jodi Jacobson

  • cchz63

    I completely agree that the 10 Americans charged with kidnapping exploited the parents’ suffering. Whatever their intentions, religious or not, they should have waited for proper documentation. Had they done so, I’m sure they would have even gained some American support. As for Silsby, her punishment should sting the worst. As this video points out, http://bit.ly/d74cnZ this wasn’t the first instance of Silby’s indiscretions with the law.