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Senate aims to close Marshall Islands adoption loophole


Senate aims to close Marshall Islands adoption loophole

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i is working with the government of the Marshall Islands on ways to close a loophole through which dozens of Marshallese babies are put up for adoption here each year, sometimes without the birth mothers clearly understanding that they probably won't see their children again.

Community forum on Marshallese adoption
  • 5 p.m. today
  • State Capitol Auditorium
A bill is moving through the state Senate that would ban the adoption of Marshallese children here unless they have the "prior written approval of an appropriate court of the Republic of the Marshall Islands consenting to the adoption."

Senate Bill 2607, which last week passed the Senate Human Services Committee, is the Hawai'i counterpart of a larger measure passed last fall by the Marshallese legislature in an effort to rein in what had been unregulated adoptions of children.

The problem arose because the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Marshall Islands allows Marshallese women to come to Hawai'i without a visa, sometimes bringing the child with them, sometimes giving birth here. The pact also allows American adoptive parents to avoid the approval of federal immigration officials necessary for other international adoptions.

Experts point out that Hawai'i has ended up paying for the live births: The women qualify for health coverage here, so some deliver their children at state expense before putting them up for adoption.

Before the government instituted a one-year moratorium in 1999 to get expert advice on developing an adoption policy, an estimated 500 children were placed for U.S. adoption from the Marshall Islands over the course of three years, according to a 1999 study by Julie Walsh Kroeker, Hawai'i social worker.

Kroeker also directs Small Islands Network, a federally funded nonprofit agency that works with Marshallese and Micronesians living here.

Since the moratorium, no government agency has kept track of the number of adoptions, Kroeker said, although she figures that about 150 each year come through Hawai'i.

Kroeker, among the speakers at a public forum today on the issue of Marshallese adoptions (see box on Page B1), said the adoptions took off in 1997, possibly because of uncertainty over how the new compact would affect immigration.

Another speaker is Jini Roby, an attorney and social work professor from Utah, final destination for many of the adopted children. Roby had dealt with the issue in her home state, both as an adoption lawyer and in family social-work counseling, and the Marshallese government invited her to help draft its adoption law.

The new U.S. compact and the Marshallese law, which both went into effect last year, make it illegal for Marshallese citizens to be admitted to the United States for the purpose of adoption, Roby said.

The law also established the Marshallese Central Adoption Authority to oversee the process; its director, Michael Jenkins, is the third forum speaker.

One aim of the law is to see that Marshallese women receive adequate counseling before giving up their children, Roby said.

"Most of the women who had relinquished children had not understood they were permanently giving up their children," she said. "It is unheard of in their culture. They could not understand how in the world you break something that is eternally a truth."

Kristine Altwies Nicholson, president of the adoption agency Hawai'i International Child, agreed. Nicholson's agency was hired by private attorneys to do birth-mother counseling.

"I did three," she said. "In all three of the cases, I helped the birth mother understand that this was not in her best interest. I had the distinct feeling that the birth mothers were not being told the whole truth.

"They were being told their children were being adopted. They were told that their child would have the right to come back home to them. The people failed to tell them that it would be highly unlikely for these kids, raised in the Midwest or someplace, to move back when they're 18."

Part of that communication gap may be cultural, Kroeker said. A mother may say she agrees to the adoption, she said, but instead may be reacting to pressure from her own family. The mother also could feel a sense of obligation after being flown to Hawai'i by adoption facilitators, some of whom put up the women in private homes and gave them medical care, Kroeker said.

Roby hopes that the new Marshallese adoption authority can have counseling programs in place within a month, so that the entire process can be conducted in an above-board manner.

"This process is not about stopping adoptions," she said. "It's about providing for orderly and transparent adoptions everyone can understand."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.

2004 Feb 17