Haitian woman takes stand in Fla. servitude case, describing her ordeal
Associated Press
Feb. 28, 2008


By Jennifer Kay

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/227313

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. A young Haitian woman testified Wednesday that she considered suicide to escape years of abuse at the hands of a South Florida family accused of keeping her as their slave.

Simone Celestin's voice wavered and she teared up as she recounted her life after being taken as a girl from her mother and grandmother in a remote mountain village to an orphanage run by Evelyn Theodore near Ranquitte, Haiti.

Theodore and her daughter Maude Paulin 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. All have pleaded not guilty.

Celestin, now 22, said she lived and worked at Theodore's home in Haiti for about two years, where she was forced to haul water and perform chores. She said Theodore would hit her or keep her home from school if she didn't finish work to her satisfaction.

Celestin said similar abuse continued when she came to the U.S. at age 14.

"They wanted me to come to the U.S.," Celestin said. "I was coming to baby-sit the kid they were going to adopt."

But the adoption never happened. The Paulins divorced in 2001, and Celestin continued living with Maude Paulin and her teenage daughter, Erica.

Celestin said Saintfort Paulin and his daughter tried to stand up for her when Maude Paulin or Theodore would mistreat her. Celestin said it was Maude Paulin who told her she had to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor and made her choose her clothes from donations collected for Theodore's orphanage.

She said she was allowed only a bucket of water for bathing while the rest of the family took showers.

"When (Maude Paulin) was mad at me, when she wanted to punish me, I had to bathe in the yard," Celestin said.

Her daily chores, she said, consisted of yard work, laundry, making beds, cleaning the bathrooms and scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. If she did not comply, she said Maude Paulin or Theodore would strike her with their hands, shoes or other household objects.

Similar work and punishments were expected at Telasco's home in Miramar, where she worked most weekends, said Celestin, speaking English she learned from television watched while baby-sitting Telasco's children.

She said she considered suicide in November 2004 after Theodore struck her. A family friend staying at the house took the bottle of motor oil she planned to drink out of her hand before she could kill herself.

"I didn't see a reason why she would hit me, and I did not want that to continue," Celestin said. "She was mad about the fact that I hadn't made the bed."

Defense attorneys on Wednesday questioned why Celestin never sought help from visitors to the Paulins' home or on the short trips she was allowed to stores or to walk the dog.

Celestin said she lied to child welfare workers who came to investigate an anonymous tip about abuse because she feared being deported to Haiti where, the family had told her, she had no living relatives.

"I didn't have no money, I didn't know anybody," she said. "I couldn't just get up and leave."

The defense insinuated that Celestin's case was motivated by a desire to remain in the country in exchange for participating in the investigation.

"Before you ran away from the Paulin household, one of the things you were looking for help for was to stay here," said Richard Dansoh, the attorney for Maude Paulin.

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.

Prosecutors on Wednesday displayed letters Celestin left for Maude Paulin and her daughter when she ran away in June 2005. "For many years I've been abused and treated like a slave," she wrote in a childlike scrawl. "No more."