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PersonalShopper.com CEO arrested while returning from child shopping trip to Port-au-Prince- by guest blogger Mike Doughney

Once again, I’m going to pick up my partner Mike’s writing about the Friday evening arrests of 10 missionaries for their attempted removal of kids from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

The text below the line is Mike’s latest post from his personal blog.


haiti-americans-detained

American citizens pose for a photo at police headquarters in the international airport of Port-au-Prince, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010. Associated Press photo/Ramon Espinosa.

In my earlier post I suggested that the overwhelming demands to move children out of Haiti for adoption elsewhere were in a way a twisted expression of American consumerism. I wrote, “It…. matches the consumerist mindset, in which by simply acquiring the right things – even your very own “orphan” – your situation, and that of the world, will improve.”

I didn’t quite expect that in little more than 24 hours, events, driven by a founder of a company that sells consumer products online, would serve to drive home that point and others I was trying to make. It’s the mythology of international adoption that is driving American prospective adopters, politicians and Christian organizations to organize the exporting of Haitian children to the United States, amid calls for legislation to simplify adoptions for prospective adopters by creating a dedicated office for it at the State Department.

Central to those calls was the demand for rapid visa approvals from the State Department. Seldom heard from this crowd was any mention that the Haitians, assisted by aid organizations, might have some interest in monitoring, or even restricting completely, the flow of unaccompanied children out of their country, making the issue of the State Department’s speed rather moot.

Most American churchgoing suburbanites are unable to drop everything, get on a plane and run off to Haiti and see if they can, for themselves, run their own version of what some of us are calling “Rendell’s Raid,” in which the governor of Pennsylvania flew to Haiti, twisted the arms of various politicians, put pressure on what was left of the Haitian government, and finally, packed more than 50 of Haiti’s children on a U.S. military plane. But inevitably, someone with some means and willing accomplices, if not connections, would actually make such an attempt – this time, ending with ten Americans being arrested by Haitian police. At this writing it’s very likely that they’re sitting in jail cells in Port-au-Prince.

It’s clear from all the documentation available online that one of the primary people involved with all this is Laura Silsby, the founder and CEO of PersonalShopper.com, an online gift shopping service based in Boise. Through a bit of digging online, mainly on Facebook, its obvious that there are numerous connections between Silsby and the others arrested, including Paul Thompson, the pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho.

It’s on Thompson’s church website where the “smoking gun” can be found, a document completed on January 19 which outlines the entire plan, for a so-called “rescue mission” to Haiti, to scoop up 100 children, some unspecified portion of them directly off the streets of Port-au-Prince, and to transport them to a temporary headquarters in a newly-rented hotel in Santo Domingo. But the whole document reads like a bit of a pipe dream; it has that feel of a lot of evangelical writing, where the expectations of the writer aren’t quite connected to the physical realities of the planet.

Silsby lists herself in this document as the “Executive Director and Founder” of “New Life Children Refuge,” a brand-new nonprofit organization which filed its incorporation papers with the state of Idaho just two months ago. Interesting, that the incorporation papers read “Personal Shopper” at the top of every page, suggesting they were sent from a fax machine at the PersonalShopper.com office. There isn’t any evidence of this “Refuge” having even so much a website or a telephone number, much less any substantial tangible resources, but that didn’t stop Silsby.

From their “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission” plan (local copy here):

The Plan:

Rescue Orphans from Port au Prince, Haiti

  • Friday/Saturday, Jan 22nd : NLCR team fly to the DR
  • Sun Jan 23rd: Drive bus from Santo Domingo into Port au Prince, Haiti and gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages, then return to the DR
  • Mon Jan 24th: Bus arrives in Cabarete, DR at New Life Children Refuge

The obvious problems with this “plan” are numerous, from even just these few lines. The trip from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince, as can be easily learned through a brief online search, is over six hours by scheduled bus under normal conditions. Were they serious about making a daytrip out of this run, it would have been little more than a snatch-and-grab of whatever kids they could have found on the streets over a few hours.

For whatever reason, they didn’t finally attempt to return to the Dominican Republic until January 29, almost a week later than they planned.  Regardless, this plan made their intent very clear: they thought they could just show up in Port-au-Prince unannounced, pick up some kids from some unspecified place that they couldn’t identify beforehand, and drive them back across the border.

As if this complete cluelessness about the conditions under which they could legitimately pick up and transport Haitian kids wasn’t enough, their facilities in Santo Domingo didn’t exist. They were going to rent a hotel for the Haitian children to land in, until they could implement the rest of their “plan” of building their own facility.

  • Interim New Life Children Refuge Location: NLCR is in the process of buying land and building an orphanage, school and church in Magante on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. 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.

It’s not clear where the expectation that building a new orphanage for 150 children in the Dominican Republic would be something that a bunch of suburbanites from Idaho without extensive experience with such a project, and considerable resources, could pull off even over the course of many years. There’s no evidence that anyone involved with this little operation was in any way already familiar with Haiti or the Dominican Republic, except perhaps from some short-term visit as a missionary tourist. Often, when browsing people’s profiles on Facebook, their previous experience and interests are obvious, and when someone is actually familiar with things like international adoption, relief work, or long-term missions – which is clearly what’s intended in this description – it shows. But not here.

Nobody in this crowd seems to have any international experience at all to speak of. When, for example, you look at their Facebook profiles, like that of Laura Silsby, you’ll see things like the fact that they’re a “fan” of Sarah Palin, or a “fan” of the Manhattan Declaration, the anti-gay, anti-abortion, statement issued by a bunch of prominent evangelical personalities including convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Others are “fans” of things like the local anti-abortion groups, or maybe, the Southern Baptist disaster response organization. Anything that might indicate an in-depth knowledge of the task and that part of the world that would be necessary to accomplish that sort of mission? It’s just not there.

There’s another peculiar aspect to this “plan” document. In the “Prayer Requests” section, which often summarizes the things that the writer either doesn’t know or hopes won’t go wrong, are these entries:

Prayer Requests

  • For discernment of God’s will and direction throughout this trip and for Him to prepare the way before us
  • For God to continue to grant favor with the Dominican Government in allowing us to bring as many orphans as we can into the DR
  • For God to guide us to the children He wants us to bring to NLCR and for their physical, emotional and spiritual healing

The second of these reflects the same kind of myopia often seen among adopters, and currently, American politicians, extending to the State Department, when dealing with international adoption. Emphasis is always placed on the receiving end, while any concerns on the part of the family or country of origin of these children is completely disregarded or viewed as false or illegitimate. Here, Silsby only cares that the Dominican Republic grant permission for them to bring in the children they’ve already collected. Even after all the recent press coverage that’s been given to the problem of child trafficking in Haiti, and the work by the Haitian government and NGOs to require full documentation of the status of each child departing the country, Silsby seems to think that that concern does not apply to her.

This became clear after her arrest, where she repeated her claim that approval from the Dominican Republic was all that was required:

But Laura Sillsby from the Idaho group told Reuters from a jail cell at Haiti’s Judicial Police headquarters, “We had permission from the Dominican Republic government to bring the children to an orphanage that we have there.”

“We have a Baptist minister here (in Port-au-Prince) whose orphanage totally collapsed and he asked us to take the children to the orphanage in the Dominican Republic,” Sillsby added.

“I was going to come back here to do the paperwork,” Sillsby said. “They accuse us of children trafficking. This is something I would never do. We were not trying to do something wrong.”

As I wrote previously, when examining the world of international adoption, there’s this element of oscillation between the global and the personal. If you grow up into a privileged, successful, entrepreneurial suburbanite in a country where people you respect are going around saying things like, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business,” perhaps when you find yourself in a “crappy little country” you might think you can do whatever you want without being suspected of something heinous like child trafficking. Silsby and her entourage seem to have found out otherwise, the hard way.

Also telling in this section is the part expecting “God” to “guide” them “to the children he wants us to bring” to their vaporware orphanage. Prayer requests are often very telling in this way; clearly, they didn’t know what they were doing, down to the basics of understanding that the only children that they might be able to take out of the country, already in the approval process for adoption, would have been identified long before they arrived in Haiti! When I say Silsby was planning a “shopping trip to Port-au-Prince,” clearly, as with other kinds of shopping, she didn’t quite know what she would be getting until she saw the merchandise.

How can someone expect to go to Haiti, do these things, and not understand that they would clearly be suspected of trafficking children?

That kind of expectation – that child acquisition and international transport by Americans can never be questioned or challenged – on the part of people like Laura Silsby is exactly what I was working to explain in my last post, where I wrote:

Television provides an illusion of participation, that by simply watching a moving image the viewer feels that they’re somehow involved in events in a far away place. But because merely being a television viewer is unsatisfying in such times, many feel moved to act in some way. The things that an average American can do with respect to such huge tragedies are few; often the only answer is to send money. The popularization of international adoption, even when the practice is overwhelmingly corrupt and may violate human rights, seems to me to fill exactly this void; the impulse to get one’s hands on the children of an earthquake-ravaged country is created by these media portrayals of external calamity interacting with the cultural predisposition that it’s the American national mission to save the rest of the planet.

This self-defined role of planetary savior, that through adoption almost anyone can indulge in, a romantic and ostensibly altruistic myth, is exactly that: role-playing. It exists independent of the actual children and people of Haiti and their realistic needs. It’s the extension of the American exceptionalist myth, expressed through its military and foreign policy of planetary enforcer and order-keeper (regardless of actual results on the ground after billions of dollars are spent), made accessible to any citizen who’s willing to meet the most basic requirements, and who can afford the fees. It also matches the consumerist mindset, in which by simply acquiring the right things – even your very own “orphan” – your situation, and that of the world, will improve.

The solution for the children of Haiti, created by those who see the world through these lenses, is simplistic, crude and appeals to the acquisitional American who thinks they can buy or trade for anything and by doing so will do no harm, to the point that we now see suggestions like this one: “What if….we could find a plane that had just dropped a load of humanitarian aid and load it up with orphans?” There’s no hiding that the writer of that sentence, a professional promoter of adoption in the Christian context, thinks it’s a fair trade: he drops off aid, he extracts “orphans” to satisfy the enormous demand he’s been helping to create in his subculture for adoptable children. If the “orphans” don’t actually exist, they would have to be manufactured, through the endless redefinition of the term, “orphan,” which today seldom means what people think it means.

When I say that evangelicals (and not exclusively evangelicals) regularly seek to strip-mine less fortunate countries of their children, I’m not using that terminology for its shock value. People like Laura Silsby are seeking to establish an industry of extracting Haitian children for adoption by Americans. The third page of their so-called “rescue mission” lays out a long-term plan – hopefully permanently derailed – to create a fully vertically-integrated industrial operation in Santo Domingo to obtain and prepare Haitian children for export, into international adoption.

Future Buildings and Plans for NLCR in Magante

  • Nueva Vida Refugio de Ninos: Provide a loving Christian home‐like environment for up to 200 children, both boys and girls, initially focused on ages 0 ‐ 10 years old, later expanding to include teens up to age 16.
  • Nueva Vida Escuela Cristiana: Provide a solid education for children in the refuge as well as in the local community if have sufficient space/resources. Plan to begin with PreSchool/Kindergarten up to 6th grade, teaching English/Spanish, Reading, Math, Science, History, Geography, Health, Music/Art, as well as Christian values/truths. Plan to add higher grades and courses on vocational skills when needed.
  • Nueva Vida en Christo Capilla: On site Chapel for the children from the refuge and the community
  • Sick Bay/Medical care: for incoming children that are in need minor medical care
  • Greenhouse/Livestock: Provide for nutritional needs of the children by growing fruits and vegetables and raising cows/chickens for milk and eggs
  • Seaside Villas at Playa Magante*: Villas for adopting parents to stay while fulfilling requirement for 60‐90 day visit as well as Christian volunteers/vacationing families.
  • Provide opportunities for adoption through partnership with New Life Adoption Foundation which works with adoption agencies in the U.S. to help facilitate adoptions and provide grants to subsidize the cost of adoption for loving Christian parents who would otherwise not be able to afford to adopt.
  • Seaside Café at Playa Magante*: small beachfront restaurant serving the community and adopting parents

Looked at from the point of view of an entrepreneur, what are these things? First, establish a warehouse for the merchandise, and processing facilities to make the merchandise suitable for the customer. Second, expedite the process of governmental approval which customers must obtain, making them as comfortable as possible while they fulfill the government’s mandate of a 60-90 day stay. Third, provide financing for the customers. Fourth, provide food and refreshment to the customers, which along with the lodging provides a “bubble” in which customers need not interact with the locals.

But as a business plan, there’s nothing to it, if the people putting it forward can’t seem to grasp the basic illegality of its initial premise. The children of Haiti are not theirs to process and export, to satisfy the endless demand for adoptable children without history, a demand their mythology creates.


Return to the Table of Contents of my Haiti series.

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