A cultural abyss

November 04, 2003

A MOTHER takes $300 in spending money and gives up her baby, not understanding that the child is lost to her for good. Another says an adoption agent told her she would shame her family if she didn't go through with the adoption.

Luckily for the second mother, the adopting family saw her pain and sent her and her baby back home together. But many adoption stories of babies conceived in the Marshall Islands hold mischief and pain for both sides, as The Sun's Walter F. Roche Jr. reported Sunday and Monday.

Some middlemen pay to send late-term Marshallese women to Hawaii so the children they bear will automatically have U.S. citizenship. Then the state's courts approve adoptions to U.S. families, who pay the middlemen, thinking it's all legal.

But Marshallese law - and international law - requires that adoptions be handled by the island courts, where judges can make sure mothers know what is going on. Many islanders practice informal intrafamily adoptions, where a relative takes the child for a time, then returns him or her to the birth family as the parents' lives change. But in international adoptions, that is hardly likely to happen, despite promises some mothers said they were given.

Such misunderstanding is built on desperation: parents from a country steeped in poverty, U.S. couples who want a child right now. But no child should lose her birth family through the intentional or unintentional deception of her mother.

On the receiving side, adoptive parents crave above all a "clean" adoption; they dread receiving a letter or a phone call that threatens to take their child away. That's what happened to a Florida family after one child's birth mother traveled the 7,000 miles to claim her - and the state court agreed, calling the transaction a black market adoption. The court blamed the middlemen, but that is little solace to the couple, the birth mother and the little girl.

Adoption laws are intended to protect children and all their parents. Officials in the Marshall Islands and the United States should ensure those protections are enforced. Of course, birth parents always may make the difficult decision to give up a child. But there should be no more stories of parents unwittingly losing that choice - and consequently their children.

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