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Haiti: U.S. Baptists Knew They Were Wrong

American citizens pose for a photo at police headquarters in the international airport of Port-au-Prince, Jan. 30, 2010.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
Updated at 9:15 p.m. Eastern.

Haiti's prime minister said Monday that 10 Americans who tried to take a busload of undocumented Haitian children out of the country knew that "what they were doing was wrong," and could be prosecuted in the United States.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive told The Associated Press that his country is open to having the Americans face U.S. justice, since most government buildings — including Haiti's courts — were crippled by the monster earthquake.

"It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents," Bellerive said. "And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."

If they were acting in good faith — as the Americans claim — "perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them," he said.

U.S. Embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept hosting judicial proceedings for the Americans, who are mostly from Idaho. For now, the case remains firmly in Haitian hands, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.

"Once we know all the facts, we will determine what the appropriate course is, but the judgment is really up to the Haitian government," he said.

Haitian officials insist some prosecution is needed to help deter child trafficking, which many fear will flourish in the chaos caused by the devastating Jan. 12 quake. The government and aid groups are still struggling to get food, water, shelter and basic health care to hundreds of thousands of survivors, and many parents are desperate to get help for their children.

U.S. diplomats have had "unlimited" access to the 10 detainees, and will monitor any court proceedings, said Crowley. They have not yet been charged.

Members of the church group insisted they were only trying to save abandoned and traumatized children — but appeared to lack any significant experience with Haiti, international charity work or international adoption regulations.

Since their arrest Friday near the border, the church group has been held inside two small concrete rooms in the same judicial police headquarters building where ministers have makeshift offices and give disaster response briefings. They have not yet been charged.

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One of their lawyers said they were being treated poorly: "There is no air conditioning, no electricity. It is very disturbing," Attorney Jorge Puello told the AP by phone from the Dominican Republic, where the Baptists hoped to shelter the children in a rented beach hotel.

One of the Americans, Charisa Coulter of Boise, Idaho, was being treated Monday at the University of Miami's field hospital near the capital's international airport. Looking pale and speaking with difficulty from a green Army cot, the 24-year-old Coulter said she had either severe dehydration or the flu. A diabetic, she initially thought her insulin had gone bad in the heat.

Two Haitian police officers stood besides the cot, guarding her.

"They're treating me pretty good," she said, adding that Haitian police didn't bring her group any food or water, but that U.S. officials have delivered water and MREs to eat. "I'm not concerned. I'm pretty confident that it will all work out," she said.

While the U.S. Baptists said they were only trying to rescue abandoned children from the disaster zone, investigators were trying to determine how the Americans got the children, and whether any of the traffickers that have plagued the impoverished country were involved.

Their detained spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, conceded that she had not obtained the proper Haitian documents, but told the AP from detention that the group was "just trying to do the right thing" amid the chaos.

The 33 kids, ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years and with their names written in tape on their shirts, were being sheltered in a temporary children's home, where some told aid workers that they have surviving parents. Lassegue said the Social Affairs Ministry was trying to find them.

"One (9-year-old) girl was crying, and saying, 'I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.' And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that," said George Willeit, a spokesman for the SOS Children's Village.

Foreigners adopting children from the developing world have grabbed headlines recently - Madonna tried to adopt a girl from Malawi amid criticism from locals, while Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a burgeoning multicultural brood.

But in Haiti, a long tradition of foreign military intervention coupled with the earthquake that destroyed much of the capital and plunged it even deeper into poverty, have made this issue even more emotionally charged. Of 20 Haitian parents interviewed in a tent camp by the AP on Sunday, only one said she would not give up her children to give them a chance at a better life.

CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports that a promise of just such a life was allegedly used by the Baptist group in Haiti. Families of five of the children reportedly showed aid workers brochures, allegedly provided by the Baptist group, promising a "better life," including swimming pools and tennis courts.

"Some parents I know have already given their children to foreigners," said Adonis Helman, 44. "I've been thinking how I will choose which one I may give."

"My parents died in the earthquake. My husband has gone. Giving up one of my kids would at least give them a chance," said Saintanne Petit-Frere, 40, a mother of six. "My only fear is that they would forget me, but that wouldn't affect my decision."

Haiti's overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the earthquake amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Sex trafficking has been rampant in Haiti. Prime Minister Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.

"For UNICEF, what is important is that for children separated from their parents, we do everything possible to have their families traced and to reunite them," said Kent Page, a spokesman for the group in Haiti. "They have to be protected from traffickers or people who wish to exploit these children."

The arrested Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. The churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America's largest Protestant denomination and has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide, but they decided to mount their own "rescue mission" following the earthquake.

In Idaho, the Rev. Clint Henry denied that his Central Valley Baptist Church had anything to do with child trafficking and said he didn't believe such reports. He urged his tearful congregation to pray to God to "help them as they seek to resist the accusations of Satan and the lies that he would want them to believe and the fears that he would want to plant into their heart."

Henry told "The Early Show" Monday that his parishioners in Haiti were working under the guidance of a local pastor and an orphanage "that needed our assistance."

Asked whether the group had obtained all the necessary documentation to remove the children from the country, Henry said, to his knowledge, "they were working on having all of that."

He said soon before their scheduled border crossing into the Dominican Republic, the group told him they just needed, "one more document."