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Marshall baby market blocked

U.S. pact, Marshallese fines target coercion

Kristen Sawada

Pacific Business News

Hawaii's role as a lucrative Marshallese baby market has gained national exposure, bringing to light potential abuses that some say the United States has ignored for years.

But U.S. officials are taking action to stop the now-illegal practice of coercing Marshallese mothers to fly to Hawaii and other states under a U.S. visa-free entry agreement to give up their babies for adoption.

U.S. acts to end adoption abuses

The amended Compacts of Free Association -- which allows Pacific Islanders unrestricted access to residence, employment, education and health care without a visa -- was signed by U.S. President George W. Bush Dec. 17 with a clause specifically to end potential abuses in the American adoption of Marshallese children.

The revised law prevents a person coming to the United States for the purposes of adoption to enter under the Compacts and requires them to obtain a visa. The law applies to any person who is or was an applicant for admission to the United States on or after March 1, 2003.

"U.S. immigration law endeavors to protect the interests of adopted children," said U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, adding that the Compacts are intended to permit adoptions in accordance with both U.S. and Marshallese law. "Schemes to circumvent these safeguards must be ended -- they are an abuse of American law and [Marshall Islands] law."

U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in a letter dated Dec. 19 to Tom Ridge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asked him to implement procedures to enforce the law and prevent the circumvention of the immigration-visa process. The three senators are members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which oversees the Compacts.

The state in recent years has emerged as a staging ground for Marshallese adoptions. This has prompted a Hawaii Attorney General's Office investigation into allegations that agencies have placed pregnant Marshallese on Medicaid so taxpayers foot the bill for prenatal and birth expenses.

Adoptive parents pay between $25,000 and $35,000 for a Marshallese child. Agencies allegedly have turned to Hawaii to bypass U.S. immigration and international adoption laws since a baby born here becomes a U.S. citizen and qualifies for a domestic adoption -- a simpler, faster and potentially cheaper process, which means higher profit margins for agencies.

Marshall Islands' new Central Adoption Authority

The Marshall Islands has already taken action to halt the practice with the Oct. 1 creation of the Central Adoption Authority, a regulatory body that imposes penalties of up to a year in jail and $1,000 fine for agencies or facilitators who coerce mothers into giving up a child or facilitate their transport to the United States for adoption of their babies.

"The dots are being connected between all the people that need to come together and talk to each other in order to clean up these practices," said Jini Roby, a lawyer and social work professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, who helped to write the Marshalls' adoption law.

While it's too early to assess whether or not the Central Adoption Authority and U.S. measures have curbed the practice, Michael Jenkins, head of the authority, says an initial increase in adoption-system abuse cases is expected while the authority moves closer to prosecuting agencies.

Meanwhile, the reporting system is working, he says. Since Oct. 1, the authority has received tips on two agencies still soliciting birth mothers out of the Marshalls and about 10 reports of violations of the adoption law, which have been referred to the Marshall Islands attorney general for prosecution, Jenkins said, adding that he expects formal charges to be filed in the next month.

Complaints reported to the Central Adoption Authority include:
  • a report from a father alleging his under-age daughter was escorted out of the Marshalls for adoption of her baby without parental consent;
  • at least two reports from husbands who were served papers to relinquish parental rights after their wives traveled to the United States to give birth and either returned without their babies or didn't return at all; and
  • a complaint by a mother and aunt who said an adoption facilitator took an underage pregnant woman to Hawaii in transit to Utah.

"The people who are benefiting are the lawyers and agencies; there's lots of money involved and a vested interest," Jenkins said. "We've seen some very sophisticated plans of people trying to get to Hawaii."

The authority has received between seven and eight applications from U.S. licensed agencies to operate in the Marshall Islands, though none have yet been approved, he said.

Jenkins is seeking to partner with local social-service agencies and health-care providers who can help track suspect agencies and illegal adoptions.

"We understand the extra burden these practices place on Medicaid and the health-care system yet we have to be careful because we don't want to infringe upon the rights of Marshallese citizens to travel [to Hawaii] and seek medical care," he said.

Legislation both in the Marshalls and in the United States aren't efforts to stop international adoptions, rather they are an effort to humanize and dignify the process, Roby said.

Local agencies partner to educate Hawaii providers

Jini Roby, a lawyer and social work professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, who helped to write the Marshall Islands' adoption law, will speak at a community forum Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Hawaii State Capitol Auditorium along with Michael Jenkins, head of the Central Adoption Authority and Julie Walsh Kroeker, an anthropologist and program director for Small Island Networks, a federally funded nonprofit agency that works with Marshallese and Micronesians living in Hawaii.

2004 Jan 26