A duel for a daughter agonizes two families

Ordeal: A young child is torn in a bitter legal tug of war between her Marshallese birth mother and new parents in Florida.

The Baby Brokers

November 03, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

SARASOTA, Fla. - For two families in Florida, the pain of an adoption gone wrong is plainly visible on their faces.

Carmen and Darlene Scoma talk sadly about the child from the Marshall Islands they thought they had legally claimed in Hawaii in 1997. For 4 1/2 years, Atina Erakdrik had been their daughter, until they lost her early last year after a bitter court battle.

"She's our daughter. She will always be our daughter," says Darlene Scoma, her voice quavering.

In Fruitland Park, 130 miles north, Atina's birth mother, Molly Juna, 31, who traveled more than 7,000 miles to reclaim her child, talks about the pain she endured during the protracted court fight.

"Very trying, very distressing," she says.

Courts in the United States and the Marshall Islands have denounced the child's "black market adoption," concluding that Juna had never properly consented to giving up her daughter. Atina was treated, said one judge, "as if she were some form of contraband."

"Spiriting a baby out of its home country, transferring possession of the baby to the prospective adoptive parents in Hawaii and the unauthorized transportation of the baby to Florida without bothering with a proper guardianship or even an enforceable power of attorney deserves the ugly name black market," wrote Judge H. Dee Johnson Jr. of the Marshall Islands High Court.

Atina's case is but one example of what can happen in the commerce in children from the poverty-ravaged Marshall Islands, where the number of youngsters adopted as a percentage of the population has become by far the highest in the world, even as the price for each child has soared to the current going rate of $25,000.

In another case, a young mother said she was coerced into taking her 7-year-old daughter to Utah to be adopted.

And in another, the adoptive father of two pre-teen girls was charged with molesting them in South Carolina.

Assessing blame

Now 7, the shy but playful Atina sits on a bench on a warm late-summer afternoon, waiting for a turn on the backyard swing that hangs from a huge, moss-draped oak that seems to defy gravity.

When her turn comes, Atina changes her mind. Instead, she plays with a toy camera, giggling as she mimics the photographer taking pictures of her.

She and her mother live with Kathryn Staton-Smith, a nurse who has adopted several children from the Marshall Islands and opened her doors to Juna, assisting in her quest to reunite her family.

Though Juna and the Scomas say they are barred by confidentiality orders from discussing details of the adoption case, some facts are evident.

The emotional scars preclude reconciliation. Those scars are unlikely to heal soon.

But while they disagree over much, both families point to the people who arranged the adoption as the ones to blame for the trauma they have suffered.

The Scomas have been absolved by the courts. They sued Hearts & Homes for Children, the now-defunct adoption agency to which they paid $17,000, and its executive director, Beverly McGurk, in Sarasota Circuit Court last year, alleging fraud and seeking restitution. The state of Florida, which licensed the agency, is named as a co-defendant.

Attorneys for Hearts & Homes have denied any wrongdoing on the part of their client, but a circuit court judge entered a default judgment against the agency Oct. 7, concluding that it was "involved in an illegal operation in the Marshall Islands." The agency is appealing the judge's ruling.

McGurk cannot be found, and lawyers for the Scomas have not been able to serve her with a copy of the lawsuit. Her last known address is in Costa Rica.

Hearts & Homes

The story of Atina's journey to the United States began in 1997, when the Scomas began to look into adoption, first by contacting local agencies such as Catholic Charities and by searching the Internet.

"We did a lot of research," says Carmen Scoma, who works in the health-care industry.

Eventually, they turned to Hearts & Homes, a local agency. With McGurk in the Marshall Islands at the time, Darlene Scoma met with a board member who described the widespread poverty, malnutrition and high child mortality rate in the Western Pacific islands.

"We really didn't know anything about it," she says.

The Scomas, both 42, were told that adopting a Marshallese child is less complicated than other foreign adoptions because islanders can travel freely to the United States.

The Scomas did more research, including a check with the Better Business Bureau, then met with McGurk in June when they signed a preliminary application. A month later they filled out a final application.

"We felt comfortable," says Carmen Scoma, adding that they had spoken with McGurk and organization board members. "We decided to go ahead."

Several months later the Scomas were told it was time to fly to Honolulu, where they would meet the birth mother and the child selected for them, a 16-month-old girl.

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