Suit claims missionaries molested Haitian orphans; feds investigating
by Richard McVay
A Pensacola-based ministry is accused in a civil lawsuit of negligence because of alleged sexual abuse of children at an orphanage in Haiti whose finances it manages.
Globe International Ministries failed to vet, train and monitor workers at the Father's Hands Children's Home in Port-de-Paix, Haiti, thus allowing a "culture of sexual abuse" to exist, according to the suit filed in Escambia Circuit Court.
Specifically, the suit claims Globe missionary and orphanage founder Keith Lashbrook of Century and other unnamed workers sexually abused the children.
Jason and Milissa Evans of Pensacola, adoptive parents of two of the children, and Christopher and Natalie Lewis of Baldwin County, Ala., who have adopted nine of the orphans, filed the suit on Nov. 8.
The suit does not specify the amount sought, but the parents' attorney, Bobby "Brad" Bradford of the Pensacola firm Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholz said the families are seeking the cost of extensive counseling their children have had and are expected to continue to undergo.
Globe President Doug Gehman does not dispute that children were molested at the orphanage.
In an Aug. 24, 2010, letter to adoptive parents, he wrote that an investigative task force he created in May 2010 after the allegations first arose declared it "undoubtedly true" that a culture of abuse existed.
But Gehman wrote that providing counseling to abused children was "outside the scope of our means and our responsibility." He stated that Globe sends missionaries into the field, but the ministries and nonprofits they establish are governed in the places where they are set up.
"Globe's association with such entities is solely defined on a casual basis, by our connection with the missionary who founded the organization," he wrote.
However, Bradford contends the expenses of such counseling are well within Globe's responsibility.
"These women want their children to get the counseling they need and the help that they need to balance out what happened to them," Bradford said. "They're not asking for a penny. Their goal is the same it has been when they first contacted Globe. It's all about the kids and protecting the children."
Beyond providing the Aug. 24 letter and a subsequent letter to the News Journal, Gehman declined to comment.
In early April 2010, Milissa Evans' then-9-year-old son told her matter-of-factly that orphanage worker Vance Cherry, then the brother-in-law of Lashbrook, had sexually abused boys at the home and that the boys had sexually abused each other.
Evans said similar allegations from other children quickly were discovered.
On April 12, 2010, she filed a complaint with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office alleging that Cherry had sexually molested her son and daughter.
She also contacted Globe within days of her son's revelation. She said she received a call back from Gehman, who said he would investigate, though he hasn't returned her calls since.
But she did receive a copy of the Aug. 24 letter that cast little doubt on the allegations.
"It is the opinion of the Task Force that abusive activities took place at the (orphanage)," Gehman wrote. "Concerning Americans being involved in abuse of children: The children's stories, the staff's suspicions, and the follow-up by the FBI in the U.S. would indicate that some allegations were based in fact."
Neither Lashbrook nor Cherry has been charged in Haiti or the United States.
Lashbrook did not return repeated calls to his Century home. A message at Cherry's Indiana phone number stated he was not receiving calls. Attempts to reach Lashbrook's attorney on Friday were unsuccessful.
Allegations against Lashbrook didn't surface until November 2010, when the Lewises' daughter told her mother that he had abused some of the girls.
"When she told me, I had to say 'Keith who?' " Natalie Lewis said in an interview.
Soon after, other children, including the Evanses' children, also made allegations that Lashbrook abused them.
On Nov. 28, 2010, Evans and Lewis filed a complaint against Lashbrook, saying their daughters said Lashbrook sexually assaulted both of them.
Evans and Lewis declined in an interview to detail the abuse.
Task force findings
Gehman's second letter to parents, dated Dec. 2, 2010, stated that the first report of sexual abuse was made Dec. 14, 2009, five months before Globe created the task force.
The letter states that "an American volunteer, not associated with Globe, engaged in sexual abuse of some of the boys. That person is no longer in Haiti and is under investigation by the FBI."
The Rev. Michael Collins of Charity Chapel in Pensacola, who is the chairman of Globe's board of directors, said the individual referred to is Cherry. Collins said he thought Cherry left the orphanage in December 2009.
"My assumption is they were valid accusations," Collins said. "... By the time that information came to us, it was about four months after he left the ministry."
However, Evans said when she told Gehman in April 2010 what her son had told her, Gehman said it was the first he'd heard of it. Evans and Lewis said Cherry left the orphanage for good just a month earlier, in March 2010.
The letter also stated that Lashbrook and his wife would take a minimum one-year leave of absence during which they would "not be involved in operations or fundraising" for the ministry.
Speaking to the News Journal by telephone, Collins, who was a member of the task force along with Gehman, said he knows of no immediate plans to return the couple to the mission. He said it was the first he'd heard of any allegations against Lashbrook.
"In all the email dialogues, we solicited any input, and at that time, nobody in that whole journey ever told me anything about Keith ever molesting a child," Collins said.
The FBI opened an investigation in spring 2010, before any of the children had pointed a finger at Lashbrook. Evans said the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division also is investigating.
She said she receives updates from the FBI about once a month. Spokesmen for the FBI and ICE declined to comment.
Evans said she does not believe Haitian authorities are investigating the orphanage.
Lewis returned to the mission in January 2010 for the first time in more than two years, just two weeks after an earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, about 140 miles from the orphanage.
During her visit, In the Father's Hands was caring for 120 children. During her previous visit, it housed half that.
She said she doesn't know how many children may have been abused.
Since the earthquake last year, 41 children have been adopted from the orphanage by families across the U.S., Lewis said. Several of the children now live near Pensacola.
Forty-three children remain at the orphanage. It is not accepting any more children.