MIAMI — Amid tears, Simone Celestin recalled the repeated beatings she endured at the hands of her adoptive family while working for them as an unpaid servant for six years.
Celestin, 23, told a South Florida court in March that she was brought to the United States from Haiti at the age of 14 and never attended school. She recalled for jurors how she was hit with a broom or shoe, worked 15-hour days, and was forced to sleep on the floor and eat table scraps.
Her recollections persuaded jurors to convict members of her adoptive family, Evelyn Theodore, 74, and Maude Paulin, her 52-year-old daughter, of conspiring to violate Celestin's civil rights and compelling her to perform forced labor. The women, who are also Haitian and adopted Celestin when she was 5, are scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday. Celestin told jurors that her situation was so dire she contemplated suicide after she was beaten for not making the bed properly.
Eventually, she fled and was taken to an area hospital, and she linked up with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
The State Department has estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 of the immigrants coming to the United States every year find themselves in a forced labor situation. According to a department study, just over 25 percent of the cases of unpaid servitude involve forced domestic labor, and nearly half of the victims fall prey to sex rings and prostitution.
But cases like Celestin's are rarely tried, as victims are often afraid or unable to come forward. However, since the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, prosecutions have increased from less than a handful nationwide per year to about a dozen.
Lawyers for the defendants said that they would appeal the verdict and that Celestin lied about her living conditions to remain in the United States.
"There were numerous inconsistencies in the government's case," said lawyer Joe DeFabio, who represented Claire Telasco, who was acquitted of conspiracy and forced labor charges. He noted how Celestin's hospital records did not indicate any signs of bruising or other trauma.
"Her not being in school was certainly wrong," DeFabio said, "but forced labor and slavery, I don't agree with that."
He said Celestin's living conditions as an adoptive child reflected a practice in Haiti known in Creole as restavek, or "staying with," in which children from poor Haitian families are turned over to wealthier ones who care for them in exchange for domestic services. Though a common practice in Haiti, restavek is widely denounced by international rights groups as a form of modern-day slavery.
Celestin was given housing assistance by the immigrant advocacy center and attends remedial education classes and receives counseling.