Marshallese adoption authority begins getting a trickle of calls

Operations began Oct. 1 in effort to stem abuses

December 20, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

The story sounded bizarre to Michael Jenkins, head of the Marshall Islands' newly created Central Adoption Authority. But his recent experience convinced him that it was also plausible.

A pregnant young woman from the Marshall Islands had traveled to Hawaii to visit friends and family. Shortly after her arrival, she was approached by an agent from an adoption agency, and she signed over her unborn child for adoption.

"It sounded aggressive, almost predator-like," said Jenkins, recounting the complaint registered recently with his agency by a relative of the expectant mother.

The call was one of about two a month that have trickled into the agency since it formally began operating Oct. 1.

It was created under a 2002 Marshall Islands law aimed at ending widespread adoption practices that had turned the Pacific island country into the world's most freewheeling, unregulated baby market.

The market was made possible by a unique international agreement that allows Marshall Islands residents to travel to the United States without a visa. Children born to Marshallese women while they are here automatically become U.S. citizens.

As a result, studies show, the tiny country recorded the world's highest per capita adoption rate, and the cost for each transaction jumped to $25,000 to $30,000. Some birth mothers, meanwhile, were being paid up to $100 a week while pregnant and given plane rides to Hawaii, Oklahoma and Utah and free lodging.

Under the new law, all adoptions of Marshallese children must go through Jenkins' agency, which has three major objectives: the licensing and regulation of adoption agencies; ensuring that birth parents understand the concept of a permanent international adoption; and recording and reviewing complaints and referring violations to the Marshall Islands attorney general for prosecution.

The law makes it illegal to solicit birth mothers, a practice that had become common over the past five years. It also prohibits arranging for a birth mother to leave the Marshall Islands to complete an adoption.

Jenkins said several adoption agencies have submitted applications seeking a license under the law. Those are under review, and a decision is not likely until the end of next month. How many agencies will be authorized has not been determined, he said, though he indicated a smaller number would be more manageable for a new and tiny agency.

"We need to have the ability to monitor," he said, saying that some of the agencies have been reluctant to submit data required to determine their suitability for a license. The refusal to provide data, he said, will be one of the issues weighed in granting licenses.

The complaints that the agency has received - one involved an underage child giving a baby up for adoption, another a birth mother being put on a plane to Utah - show Jenkins that the word is finally getting out about the new law.

"I'm convinced that the reporting system is working," Jenkins said. "What I'm not sure of is whether the violations are actually going down or whether they've just gone underground."

In another complaint, he said, the agency was told that a birth mother had been flown to Guam to give up her baby.

All of the complaints have been referred to the Marshall Islands attorney general for investigation and possible prosecution.

The Sun reported in November that despite the new law, dozens of pregnant women have been flown from the Marshall Islands to Hawaii, Oklahoma, Utah and other locations to give their newborns up for adoption.

Jenkins stressed that his agency does not intend to target pregnant women and charge them with violations of the law. In fact, he said, one of the new agency's main objectives is to help the women. The penalties set out in the statute - up to a year in jail - are aimed at the adoption agencies and their agents, also known as facilitators, who violate the law.

Jini Roby, a professor at Brigham Young University who helped the Marshall Islands government set up the new agency and has studied the issue extensively, said she knows "that some agencies are doing business as usual through Hawaii." It was Roby's study that found that the majority of Marshallese birth mothers did not understand the concept of permanent adoption.

Officials of Adoption Choices, an American agency which had arranged Marshallese adoptions and operates in Hawaii, Oklahoma and Colorado, say they have shut their program down and are seeking a license under the new law. Officials of two other programs that have been transporting birth mothers to Hawaii did not respond to a request for comment on the current status of their programs.

While the recent publicity has increased awareness, Jenkins and other advocates of adoption reform in the Marshall Islands are also taking steps to see that the word is spread further, particularly in Hawaii.

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