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Haitian adoptee forced to work wins case
The New York Times
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 age 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 to be sentenced Tuesday.
Celestin told jurors her situation was so dire she contemplated suicide, debating one day in March 2004 whether she should drink "motor oil or bleach" 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.
State Department statistics indicate 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, slightly more than a fourth 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 a 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.
"She exaggerated her case, and it suited everyone's purpose to just go along with it," said Leonard Fenn, the lawyer for Theodore, who characterized his client as a strict disciplinarian and "an old-fashioned woman from an old-fashioned country."
"But I don't think she was a slave owner or slave master, as the verdict found," Fenn said.
Even a lawyer for a defendant acquitted in another case took exception to the ruling.
"There were numerous inconsistencies in the government's case," said the lawyer, Joe DeFabio, who represented Claire Telasco. Telasco 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, but forced labor and slavery, I don't agree with that," he said.
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 that 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.
The lawyer for Celestin refused to comment.
But Grace Chung Becker, acting attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said the "defendants used their power and affluence to coerce a vulnerable 14-year-old girl into their personal service for six years."
Celestin was given housing assistance by the immigrant-advocacy center and attends remedial-education classes and receives counseling.
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