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Dominican official: I warned U.S. church leader about Haitian kids

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Helpers or kidnappers?
  • Dominican consul general: "This woman knew what she was trying to do was not legal."
  • Laura Silsby, 9 other Americans turned back from border with 33 Haitian children
  • The U.S. church group is being held by Haitian authorities
  • Haiti and Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- The Dominican consul general Wednesday rejected the claim from an American church leader that she thought her paperwork was in order when she attempted to take 33 Haitian children out of the country, saying he had told her it was not.

"I warned her, I said as soon as you get there without the proper documents, you are going to get into trouble, because they are going to accuse you, because you have the intent to pass the border without the proper papers and they are going to accuse you with kids trafficking," Carlos Castillo said he told the group's leader, Laura Silsby, during a meeting Friday.

Four hours later, Silsby and nine other Americans were turned back from the border. They were arrested and taken to a jail in Port-au-Prince.

"This woman knew what she was trying to do was not legal," Castillo said.

A CNN reporter attempted to get reaction to Castillo's comment from the jailed Americans, but they would not discuss the matter, responding to questions by singing "Amazing Grace" and praying.

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Told earlier that many of the children had living parents, Silsby said, "I did not know that."

She added, "In our hearts, our intention was to help children that had been orphaned or abandoned by their parents."

But the interpreters the group had used said the conversations between Silsby and the parents in the Haitian town of Calebasse made clear to them that Silsby must have been aware of the children's status.

Full coverage of Haiti earthquake aftermath

SOS Children's Villages, an Austrian charity, said that it has determined that at least two-thirds of the children are not orphans.

Authorities on Wednesday questioned a Haitian police officer who works at the Dominican Embassy about whether he provided illegal paperwork to Silsby and the other Americans to facilitate their efforts as alleged by interpreters who had translated for the Americans.

The interpreters told CNN the Americans met at least twice last week with the officer, at the embassy and consulate.

"He told them that he could help, and he was helping them with some paper," said interpreter Steve Adrien. "We did not meet him in a police station, but in the street in a car."

The Americans met again with the man in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, near the Dominican Embassy, the translator said.

Isaac Adrien, Steve's brother and another of the interpreters, said the group came away from the meeting with a document from the embassy that the Americans took with them to the border Friday in their unsuccessful attempt to cross.

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A Haitian lawyer representing the Americans told reporters that the arrests themselves were illegal and that their clients had only been trying to help. They are to appear Thursday before the attorney general.

The group, New Life Children's Refuge, said it was rescuing abandoned children by moving them to the Dominican Republic, where it was building an orphanage.

At least some of the group are members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho.

Several residents of the village of Calebasse, more than an hour from Port-au-Prince, told CNN they voluntarily handed over their children after Silsby told them she would give them a better life.

Pastor Jean Sainvil told CNN he rounded up 20 children from a camp in the Delmas neighborhood of the capital. "I just got the word out that I am going to look for some children to be going with a group of missionaries," he said.

Some of those who responded apparently included parents. "One of them turned five children over," he said. He said no money changed hands.

The group has no experience running an orphanage, has not registered as an international adoption agency and has not filed with the U.S. government as a nonprofit.

Church pastor Clint Henry was unfazed. "I believe that the kind of knowledge that it takes to begin an organization that works that way was in place," he told CNN. "The kind of employees that it takes to successfully run an orphanage, those were going to be hired."

The matter drew attention Wednesday from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"It was unfortunate that, whatever the motivation, that this group of Americans took matters into their own hands," she said.

The number of Haitian orphans taken to the United States -- those whose approval and paperwork had been in the bureaucratic pipeline at the time of the disaster -- stands at 578, with 44 others processed and awaiting transportation, said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

CNN's Dan Simon in Meridian, Idaho; Karl Penhaul in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Jill Dougherty in Washington; and Fionnuala Sweeney in Atlanta, Georgia, contributed to this report.