Illegal practices involving foreign moms complicate adoptions here and nationwide
By Rob Perez
This was supposed to be a joyous month for Richard and Joyce Frost.
After trying unsuccessfully for years to have a child of their own, the New York couple paid $21,500 to adopt a Marshallese baby girl who was to be born in Hawaii this month.
The Frosts already had a name selected: Kaylia Grace.
But the couple never got to welcome Kaylia to their home. Instead of the joy of being new parents, they've felt nothing but frustration, sadness and anger in recent weeks.
The emotional turnabout came because of a botched adoption that is drawing more attention to the controversial practice of adoption agencies bringing pregnant Marshallese women to Hawaii to feed a national demand for babies.
A few weeks before Kaylia was born, the agency the Frosts were using contacted them to report that several birth mothers, including Kaylia's, had been "taken" from its Hawaii housing facility by a Kauai attorney.
The attorney, the agency told them, refused to release the women back to the agency.
When the Frosts contacted the lawyer, they were told they still could adopt Kaylia -- if they paid an estimated $22,500.
Already out $21,500 and with no baby to show for it, the Frosts were stunned. They refused to pay the extra money, which they said they didn't have anyway.
"It's morally wrong," Joyce Frost said. "It's evil. It just seems so unfair. Somebody has to be held responsible."
Just who is responsible is unclear.
Kathy Lahr, chief executive for Southern Adoption, the Mississippi-based agency the Frosts hired, didn't return several phone calls seeking comment.
The Mississippi Attorney General's Office confirmed that it is investigating Southern Adoption based on the Frost case and numerous other complaints lodged against the agency.
One of those cases involved David and Candace Chonka, an Oklahoma couple who said they paid Southern Adoptions $21,500 but, like the Frosts, have no baby to show for it.
The Chonkas also got the notice from Lahr that the Marshallese birth mother with whom they had been matched was kidnapped in Hawaii, he said. Unlike the Frosts, the Chonkas never contacted the Kauai attorney.
"We're out a lot of money," David Chonka said. "I don't expect to see a dime back."
Sue Perry, an official with the Mississippi Attorney General's Office, said the numerous complaints her office has received involve "concerns from people trying to adopt through Southern Adoption." She said she couldn't elaborate because of the pending investigation.
Linda Lach, the Kauai attorney whom Lahr accused of "taking" the birth mothers, disputed the allegations.
Lach, who has arranged Marshallese adoptions in the past, said people working with Southern Adoption contacted her office in mid-February to ask whether Lach could help a group of Marshallese birth mothers who were being improperly cared for on Oahu.
The mothers had been evicted from the Moanalua apartment complex where they were staying, had no money for food and shelter, and Southern Adoption had stopped sending them any funding, Lach said she was told.
Once Lach determined that the mothers were in distress, still were interested in adopting out their babies and wanted to work with her, she said she intervened. Nine birth mothers, including the one who had been matched to the Frosts, came under her care, she said.
"From my perspective, we rescued them," Lach said.
She acknowledged that she told three families who contacted her, including the Frosts, that they would have to pay her legal fees plus other costs to adopt the babies, even though they already had paid thousands of dollars to Southern Adoption.
"They're paying twice, there's no two ways about it," Lach said.
That problem, however, was created not by her but by Southern Adoption, according to Lach. "I certainly feel for (the families). I know this hurts. But I didn't do that."
Lach said two of the three families are going ahead with the adoptions. She wouldn't say how much they ended up paying, although, like with the Frosts, she said she offered to discount her usual legal fee.
Two other babies who were born after Lach intervened were placed with families she previously had worked with because no Southern Adoption clients by then had contacted her about those infants.
The baby who had been matched with the Frosts is now supposed to be placed with another former Southern Adoption client, according to Lach. That infant was born last week.
The Frost case likely will create more buzz about an adoption practice that already is drawing the attention of authorities in several states, plus federal agencies such as the FBI, the State Department and Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
Aided by a U.S.-Marshall Islands compact agreement that allows Marshallese to travel to the United States without a visa, adoption agencies have been bringing pregnant women from that Western Pacific nation to Hawaii in the past few years, where they give birth and then turn over the babies to American families previously matched for adoptions.
The practice, according to critics, circumvents Marshallese law and tends to exploit the birth mothers, who generally don't understand that they are giving up their children for good -- a concept foreign to Marshallese culture.
Some critics also say the practice often involves adoption agencies committing fraud against the mothers, state and federal governments and health-care providers -- one reason law enforcement agencies are taking a closer look.
The Hawaii Attorney General's Office is investigating whether Medicaid fraud is involved.
Many of the Marshallese women, who usually don't speak English, are brought to Hawaii and enrolled in state-funded Medicaid, which covers their medical expenses. But in some cases, the adoption agency collects money for medical expenses from the adopting families while enrolling the mothers in Medicaid, raising the question of whether the families and state taxpayers are being double-billed.
That was one issue mentioned last week when U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie hosted a video conference to discuss ways to solve what he and others called a problem of human trafficking.
Lach, however, cautioned against tainting a whole industry by the unethical actions of a few. She said the problems associated with Marshallese adoptions have nothing to do with where the birth mothers are from.
"I think it's an unethical agency taking advantage of people who are desperate for a child," she said.
Kauai resident Kim Kennedy, on the national board of Ethica, an organization that advocates ethical practices in adoptions, said cases involving Marshallese women giving birth in the United States are unusual for two reasons: those adoptions are considered domestic even though the mothers are from a foreign country, and the adopting families pay for the birth mothers' medical expenses before the infants are placed with the families.
In international adoptions, the birth mother's expenses usually are paid by a government organization, orphanage or some other entity in the home country, not by the adopting family, Kennedy said.
If the family pays the expenses, "they're taking a big risk," she said, because the mother is free to change her mind about the adoption even after the baby is born.
The Frost case demonstrates another kind of risk: money for a birth mother's expenses can be paid up front to one organization, but the mother eventually ends up with another, rendering meaningless the initial payments.
That can happen even in cases involving U.S. birth mothers, industry officials say.
Although Frost and her husband had their hearts set on adopting Kaylia, she said they're trying to put that heartbreak behind them. They eventually plan to pursue another adoption through a different agency.
Frost said she hopes their awful experience of the past few weeks will result in positive changes to the system of adopting Marshallese babies.
"Maybe God was just using us as a tool to fix this thing," she said.