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Posted Tuesday, February 26, 2008
After a formal accusation of practizing "house slavery," trial of Haitian family begins
By Jennifer Kay, Associated Press Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - A family accused of keeping a Haitian teen as a slave and abusing her are the victims of an opportunist looking to get residency in this country, defense attorneys said Monday in opening statements.

Maude Paulin and her mother, Evelyn Theodore, face federal charges that they illegally brought Simone Celestin into the U.S., kept her in involuntary servitude and conspired to violate her civil rights until the girl escaped in 2005.

Paulin's sister, Claire Telasco, also faces charges of forced labor and conspiracy. Paulin's ex-husband, Saintfort Paulin, faces a federal human trafficking charge. Each defendant has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Prosecutors said Celestin was stolen at age 5 from her mother and grandmother in a remote mountain village and forced to pretend she was an orphan at the orphanage Theodore ran with her late husband in Ranquitte, Haiti.

Theodore's family got a flight attendant friend to bring the girl to the U.S. on a 29-day visa at age 14. For the next six years, her life consisted of 15-hour work days as an unpaid servant, no schooling and beatings, prosecutors said.

"She was never intended to leave this country or their custody," said Cyra Cay O'Daniel, a trial attorney with the U.S. Justice Department.

In court documents filed last year, prosecutors identified Celestin as a so-called "restavek," a term meaning "one who stays with" in Haitian Creole.

There are an estimated 300,000 such poor children in Haiti who work for wealthier families in exchange for food, shelter and the promise of school, though many end up victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Advocates say an unknown number of restaveks are hidden within this country's Haitian immigrant community, which is often loath to discuss the practice with outsiders.

Defense attorneys argued Monday that the abuse allegations only surfaced after Celestin ran away from Maude Paulin's home and sought to obtain permanent residency.

"Simone goes to an immigration lawyer. Simone finds out what needs to be alleged so she can stay in this country. Allegations are made and before you know it, here we sit," said Telasco's attorney, Joel DeFabio.

Celestin was Paulin's father's favorite child at the Ranquitte orphanage, said Richard Dansoh, Paulin's attorney.

Paulin had hoped to adopt a younger child with her then-husband Saintfort Paulin, and took in Celestin to care for that child. But instead of adopting, the couple divorced, leaving Maude Paulin stuck with Celestin, Dansoh said.

Paulin tried home-schooling Celestin, but the teen was uncooperative and increasingly interested in boys, believing her status as an illegal immigrant would be resolved if she got married, he said.

Celestin could have told numerous people, including child welfare workers investigating an anonymous tip, that she was being abused. But the girl said nothing, Dansoh said.

Prosecutors said Theodore slapped and punched Celestin at the orphanage in Haiti, and continued the abuse in Florida.

Theodore's attorney, Leonard Fenn, said no medical report supports that claim.

Saintfort Paulin's federal public defender, Jan Christopher Smith, argued his client had nothing to do with Celestin's upbringing in his home, and that the Paulins divorced in 2001.

Celestin is expected to testify at the trial.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press

RELATED TEXT: Slavery in the family

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