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Idaho church defends members jailed in Haiti

The church members left this Boise suburb the night of Jan. 21 in an SUV, towing a U-Haul trailer full of children’s clothes and diapers for the Haitian orphans they expected to rescue.

On Tuesday, the 10 Americans were in a Haitian jail, awaiting a hearing to determine whether they would be charged for what officials there contend was attempted kidnapping and child trafficking. The group -- which has said it intended only to provide shelter and care in the neighboring Dominican Republic -- was stopped at the border Friday night with 33 children, many of whom turned out not to be orphans.

At Central Valley Baptist Church here, officials strongly dispute the suggestion that members of their congregation were engaged in human trafficking. “It doesn’t match the character of any of the people on this trip,” Pastor Clint Henry said Tuesday. “When our people get to tell their story, I think it’s going to make a difference.”

Before the Jan. 12 earthquake, two church members had started a charity in hopes of building an orphanage in the Dominican Republic for Haitian children. But once the magnitude of the devastation became apparent, Laura Silsby, 40, and Charisa Coulter, 24, accelerated their plan.

They asked the church’s missions program to help them get to the impoverished island nation as soon as possible and, according to family and friends, secured a motel in the Dominican Republic that could function as an orphanage. The congregation responded, Henry said. Stacks of donated goods began piling up in the church lobby.

Members of Central Valley have traveled on overseas missions before. But Henry said the hope was that an orphanage closer to the U.S. would give congregants an opportunity to regularly help people in need. “This was kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “Let’s go be a part of . . . changing kids’ lives.”

The Central Valley group partnered with missionaries from a Baptist church in Twin Falls, Idaho. They were taking their first group of children from Haiti to the Dominican Republic when authorities stopped them.

Speaking from the Haitian jail, Silsby told reporters Monday night that the group lacked formal paperwork to transport the children, but that “God wanted us to come here to help children; we are convinced of that.”

Haiti’s prime minister has accused them of kidnapping. A government spokesman said he did not know when the 10 Americans would appear before a judge.

CNN interviewed some of the children’s parents, who said they had handed them over to Silsby, hoping the youths would have better lives in her orphanage.

On Tuesday, the head of SOS Children’s Village -- which is now sheltering the children -- said that the youths, while in the church group’s care, “weren’t well-dressed, they were dehydrated. They needed medical assistance.”

“I don’t know all the facts,” CEO Heather Paul said, “but if they were good intentions, they’ve certainly gone awry.”

Coulter’s father, Mel, said Tuesday that his daughter and the other members of her expedition had to deal with a chaotic situation when they arrived in Haiti.

“It’s easy to criticize them for not having all their ducks in a row, but there wasn’t even a duck pond when they landed,” he said. “They really felt led to be there. They had the best interests of the children at heart.”

nicholas.riccardi@ latimes.com

Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg in Haiti contributed to this report.


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