CALLEBAS, Haiti (AP) — Parents in this quake-wracked Haitian village unable to feed or clothe their children handed the youngsters over to a group of American missionaries who promised to give them a better life.
In a testament to the misery of a nation that was the western hemisphere's poorest even before a Jan. 12 earthquake, many Callebas parents say they wouldn't know what to do if they had to take the children back.
"I am living in a tent with a friend," said Laurentius Lelly, a 27-year-old computer technician who gave up his two children, ages 4 and 6. "My main concern is that if the kids come back I'm not going to be able to feed them."
The Americans were to appear Thursday before a prosecutor who will decide whether to file charges or release them, Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue told the AP.
The stories the parents told The Associated Press on Wednesday in this village a half hour from the capital contradict claims by the Baptist group's leader that the children came from orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives.
The 10 Baptists, most from Idaho, were arrested last week trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without the required documents, according to Haitian authorities.
Standing amid piles of debris that used to be their homes and the makeshift shelters of tin and plastic sheeting that have replaced them, the people of Callebas told how they came to surrender their children.
It all began last week when a local orphanage worker, fluent in English and acting on behalf of the Baptists, convened nearly the entire village of 500 people on a dirt soccer field to present the Americans' offer.
Isaac Adrien, 20, told his neighbors the missionaries would educate their children in the neighboring Dominican Republic, the villagers said, adding that they were also assured they would be free to visit their children there.
Many parents jumped at the offer.
"It's only because the bus was full that more children didn't go," said Melanie Augustin, a 58-year-old who gave her 10-year-old daughter, Jovin, to the Americans.
Adrien said he met the Baptists' leader, Laura Silsby of Meridian, Idaho, in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26. She told him she was looking for homeless children, he said, and he knew exactly where to find them.
He rushed home to Callebas, where people scrape by growing carrots, peppers and onions. That very day, he had a list of 20 children.
Jorge Puello, the group's lawyer, said Wednesday by phone from the Dominican Republic that the missionaries "willingly accepted kids they knew were not orphans because the parents said they would starve otherwise."
Prime Minister Max Bellerive has suggested the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti's shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attempt to bring undocumented children out of Haiti was "unfortunate whatever the motivation" and the Americans should have followed proper procedures. She said U.S. officials were in discussions with Haitian authorities about how to resolve the case.
Lelly said he was worried the Haitian judicial system would not properly investigate the case. No Haitian police or social welfare investigators have visited the village since the Americans were arrested at the border, the parents said.
"I would like to find out if these people were really going to help the kids or were trying to steal them," Lelly said.
The children, ranging in age from 2 to 12, are being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince.
A Haitian-born pastor who said he worked as an unpaid consultant for the group insisted the Baptists had done nothing wrong.
The Rev. Jean Sainvil said some of the children were orphans and might have been put up for adoption. Children with parents were to be kept in the Dominican Republic, and would not lose contact with their families, Sainvil said in Atlanta.
"Everybody agreed that they knew where the children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed they would be allowed to see the children and even take them back if need be," he said.
Sainvil stressed that in Haiti it is not uncommon for parents who can't support their children to send them to orphanages.
Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.