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ADOPTION AND AGENCY: American Adoptions of Marshallese Children [Walsh]

American Adoptions of Marshallese Children

Julianne M. Walsh

Doctoral Candidate

College of Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology

346 Social Science Building



From 1996-1999 over 500 children were adopted from the Marshall Islands by Americans, placing the RMI well within the top twenty source nations for international adoptions. Without government regulation of this sudden and rapidly growing phenomenon, the potential for misunderstanding and exploitation grew alarming to national leaders who supported a moratorium on foreign adoptions late in 1999. This paper examines possible factors of foreign adoption in a society where customary adoptions have been among the highest in the Pacific. Social and economic marginalization in recent years combined with understandings of America and Americans based on historic relations are linked to the growth of a “baby business” whose social, legal, cultural, and emotional implications have yet to be imagined, much less addressed.

Key words: Marshall Islands, adoption, US relations, , identity, migrant communities.

Prepared for “Out of Oceania: Diaspora, Community, and Identity” conference sponsored by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai`i at Manoa. October 22, 1999, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Over 500 Marshallese children were adopted by Americans between 1996 and 1999. Prior to that period, the average annual number of foreign adoptions was approximately seven.  By the time the moratorium was put into place in September of 1999 at least 12 different adoption agencies had established themselves in the Marshall Islands assisted by five local lawyers, four American and one Marshallese. Additionally, each agency hired local liaisons to identify potential children for adoption, and to coordinate, translate, and facilitate adoptions on both Majuro, and Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll. While the majority of adopted children come from the two urban centers of the nations (where 2/3rd of the entire Marshallese population reside) others were adopted from the “outer islands,” or atolls.

How does one explain the sudden growth of this phenomenon? What is the appeal of Marshallese children to Americans? Why are Marshallese parents offering their children for adoption outside the extended family? With a tradition of intra-clan adoption dating centuries, how can one understand the sudden growth of this “Booming Baby Business”, what the Marshall Islands Journal termed the nation’s “Saddest Export.”.

See full paper attached.

1999 Oct 22