When disasters strike, humanitarian workers worldwide are trained to trade their daily routine to provide medical, food and infrastructure assistance. There are also opportunists who seek their fortunes on the broken backs and hearts of the displaced people, and they target the most vulnerable — the child.
Child traffickers and pedophiles are printing adoption papers and marriage licenses under fake names (also known as child laundering), and packing cash they'll need to pay the bribes to the border guards.
But the recent arrests of 10 Idaho missionaries who were stopped as they tried to cross the border without documentation for 33 Haitian children indicates that even ostensibly humanitarian groups may be taking advantage of the chaotic aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake.
A little known but important U.N. treaty called the Convention on the Rights of the Child was written to address exactly the types of perilous and uncertain circumstances that Haitian children now confront. In 1989, the CRC recognized children as individual rights holders and not the property of adults. Unfortunately, the United States is not among the 193 countries that have ratified the treaty.
The treaty is designed to have governments support the parental role of raising children by providing education, health care and most of all, protection. But when the parent is absent, the CRC obligates governments to protect children from potentially harmful strangers.
Adhering to the principles of the CRC would have a direct effect on the 33 Haitian children seized at the border and potentially thousands of other children whose families are in crisis.
Adults, including private or public authorities, must respect the local laws of established authorities and act in the best interests of the child. That would mean no one could cross a border with a child without obtaining legal guardianship under the laws of the Haitian government.
Under the CRC, the government must ensure that children not be separated from their parents against their will. Parents in Haiti often give their children to private orphanages or adoption agencies that they believe will provide for them. The circumstances of these transfers are sometimes murky, and the government should ensure there is no coercion or deception.
The child has a right to speak on his own behalf. The Haitian authorities respected this and the children being transported as "orphans" were allowed to speak. When they did, they said their parents were alive.
Children also have the right to freedom of religion. It's not inconceivable that a child raised as a Roman Catholic, like 90 percent of Haitians, would object to the evangelical Protestant doctrine practiced by many missionaries.
When a child is temporarily deprived of his or her family environment, the government must provide for alternative care. This is especially difficult in Haiti now given the feebleness of the federal government, which makes it more important than ever for outside governments to assist.
Even with international treaties in place, bad things happen to children everywhere. Parents harm their children and many even sell them into slavery.
In the United States, the pastor of a church certainly cannot authorize the intercountry transport of another person's child. In the United States, a mother cannot consent to adoption without the consent of the father. Why would anyone think it should be different in Haiti?
All accredited child-serving organizations are aware of the dozens of international legal instruments designed to protect children. Ignorance is not a permissible legal defense. And extra care and compassion must be taken when it comes to the well-being of a child.
Sherry Sacino lives in St. Petersburg and is president & CEO of the Youth Empowerment Alliance, Inc. (www.yealliance.org). She is the author of "Legal Commentary on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 17, Right to Access Information," Brill Publishing, the Netherlands.