Federal case thrusts the issue of child slavery into spotlight

By Amy Driscoll
The Miami Herald

MIAMI — A rolled-up mattress on the dining room floor served as her bed. Her shower was a hose in the backyard. When visitors came over, she was told to hide in a closet or the garage.

Federal court documents paint a grim picture of a slave-like life for Simone Celestin — 15-hour work days, seven days a week, no schooling and no freedom. An orphan smuggled into Miami from Haiti at age 14, she lived in a Southwest Miami home for almost six years, fearful of being deported, under conditions that amounted to involuntary servitude, prosecutors say.

Four people -- a mother, two daughters and one ex-husband of a daughter -- were indicted in connection with the case in April. Charges include human trafficking and forced labor.

The indictment said Evelyn Theodore and her daughters, Maude Paulin and Claire Telasco, hit the girl with hands, fists and "other objects" to force her to work as a servant in their house in South Miami-Dade and in other houses.

"The prosecution of individuals involved in human trafficking is a top priority of the Justice Department," a U.S attorney's office statement said at the time of indictment.

The Bush administration has placed strong emphasis on trafficking enforcement. This month, Congress is preparing to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Enacted in 2000, it's the first comprehensive federal law for prosecution of traffickers.

The U.S. attorney's office won't talk about the prosecution before trial. Celestin was unavailable for comment as well. But an attorney for defendant Maude Paulin said this is no case of modern-day slavery. Instead, the lawyer said, the case -- set for trial in January -- boils down to a series of false impressions, misunderstandings and misinformation.

"These were well-intentioned people who had high hopes for improving Simone's future lifestyle," said Richard Dansoh, the Coral Gables lawyer defending Maude Paulin. "They did not put any restrictions on her. They did try to advise her that, as she came of age, she needed to be careful about running around with men."

As further proof, he cited a Miami-Dade police report showing that an anonymous abuse complaint lodged in 2000 was investigated at the home -- and determined to be unfounded.

The police report noted that the complaint involved the 14-year-old girl who reportedly had been "smuggled into the country from Haiti and was being forced to work in the home as a maid."

The report said a state investigator found the child to be in good health, that she spoke only Creole and there were "no signs of child abuse/neglect." The report also noted that police had notified immigration officials about a "possible illegal immigrant."

From an orphanage

The girl came from an orphanage in Haiti owned and operated by the family, Dansoh said. The indictment specifies the D'Amitie orphanage, owned by Theodore. Dansoh said the girl was a favorite of Theodore's late husband, who also owned the orphanage.

Theodore and Paulin lived in a Southwest Miami home. Claire Telasco lived in Miramar. Paulin's former husband, Saintfort Paulin of New Jersey, is charged only in the third count of the indictment, harboring or shielding the girl from detection for financial gain.

Dansoh disputes most of the claims in the indictment: Celestin used the shower in the house, he said, though neighbors may have seen her hose off in the yard after gardening. She may have slept on a mattress on the floor, he said, but so did other family members, including Maude Paulin, when guests came to stay. He said Paulin did most of the cleaning in the house herself.

And though court papers filed by the prosecution say Celestin escaped in June 2005, Dansoh said she was never held captive.

"Simone was free to leave. There was a Publix nearby that she went to frequently. She could come and go," he said.

"I cannot sit here and tell you that her plan was to find a man, marry a man and legalize her status," he added. "But if someone were to say that, would common sense support that? I think so."

While federal laws have put a new emphasis on human trafficking cases -- since 2001, the Justice Department has charged more than 300 people as human traffickers and convicted more than 200 -- laws cannot always combat some of the cultural issues that surface.

In Haiti, children frequently become forced domestic servants, or restaveks. According to UNICEF, an estimated 173,000, or 8 percent of Haitian children between 5 and 17, currently fall into that category.

But an accepted practice in Haiti -- the use of restaveks -- is an illegal act in the United States, a dividing line that isn't always apparent to everyone, said Marlene Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami.

"People still think it is OK -- still today they think that! And they're reluctant to report it. They don't know if it is a crime," she said. "That's why we feel outreach is very important."

Restavek, which means "staying with" in Creole and is also sometimes spelled restavec, is an idea that is "well accepted in the culture," Bastien said. "Our concern is that there may be lots of little restaveks out there."

Victims afraid

Sabrina Salomon, an attorney at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said victims often are too afraid to come forward because they think they will be imprisoned or sent back to their home country under worse conditions.

"As in any form of human trafficking, the victims are very reluctant to come forward," she said. "They really don't think they have avenues outside of what's been presented to them. Increasing awareness is the only way to break the cycle."

Copyright 2007 The Miami Herald

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