After eight years of frustrating and unsuccessful fertility treatments, Joyce Frost and her husband, Richard, thought they had finally found a guaranteed way to bring a child into their family - the adoption of a newborn from the Marshall Islands.
The Marietta, N.Y., couple paid a fee of $21,500 to Southern Adoption, a nonprofit agency based in Philadelphia, Miss., that promised them an infant in a short time with minimum problems, they said. The birth mother named Mera, they were told, was due March 16 and had already been flown to Hawaii to deliver her baby.
Then things fell apart.
In phone calls and e-mails, the Frosts said they were told by Southern's Executive Director Kathy Lahr last month that the birth mother was no longer with her agency but was now with a competitor, a Hawaii adoption lawyer named Linda Lach. What's more, they learned from Lach that if they still wanted to adopt Mera's baby it would cost them another $22,500.
Calling the experience "devastating," Frost said, "It's been very difficult. This is our chance for an adoption. It just doesn't seem fair."
Another seven families expecting to adopt a Marshallese child are apparently in the same predicament, said Michael Jenkins, head of the newly created Central Adoption Authority in the Marshall Islands.
He said his agency is investigating the Frosts' case and several others, adding that he has contacted Hawaii state officials and was also passing along information to the FBI seeking assistance in locating the birth mothers and investigating the allegations.
In Mississippi, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Compretta said his office had received numerous complaints about Southern Adoption and was conducting an active investigation.
Under Marshall Islands law, it is illegal for adoption agencies to entice pregnant women to leave the country for the purposes of adoption. He said the information gathered thus far indicates that eight birth mothers were involved.
The switch from the adoption agency to the attorney apparently occurred over a recent weekend, Compretta said.
Lahr did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Lach, who has an office in Lihue on the island of Kauai.
Last fall, Lach said in an interview with The Sun that she considered herself "on the side of the angels" in placing the children of poverty-stricken islanders with American families. "My position is that as long as it is legal [in the United States], I'll do it," she said. "These moms need help."
Since then, President Bush signed an amended version of the Compact of Free Association, which governs relations with the Marshall Islands, a former U.S. trust territory.
In January, three U.S. senators, including Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat, said one of the new provisions requires Marshallese pregnant women to obtain a visa if they plan to give up their child for adoption and called on the Department of Homeland Security to enforce it.
Ordinarily, Marshallese citizens can enter the United States without visas; when they give birth in Hawaii, their children automatically become U.S. citizens.
A Sun series published Nov. 2-3 last year reported that adoption agencies were exploiting this loophole and flying hundreds of Marshallese birth mothers to Hawaii, Oklahoma, Utah and other states to circumvent the island law.
American parents have been paying fees of up to $30,000 to agencies to complete the adoptions, while the birthmothers say they receive only a few hundred dollars.
Hawaii officials are attempting to block the illegal flow, in part because many Marshallese mothers go on state Medicaid rolls before giving birth. A bill now pending in the state legislature would require that adoptions of Marshallese in the Hawaii courts could only proceed if the case had the prior approval of the Marshallese courts.
The latest incident marks the second time in the past six months that similar accusations involving Southern Adoption and Lach have surfaced. Last fall, officials of the two agencies traded charges, all denied, of luring away birth mothers and mistreating them.
Last October, Lach was accused by Southern Adoption of taking four pregnant Marshallese women that the Mississippi agency had flown to Hawaii. In a posting on RMI-kids - an Internet chat group for those who have adopted or are interested in adopting Marshallese children - Lach said she intervened to spare the women from mistreatment.
She quoted from a scolding telephone message she said was left for her by Lahr. "You don't break into a person's house and steal their THINGS," Lahr said, according to the posting.
"Unfortunately, that is how SA views the birth moms it works with. Things," Lach wrote.
In the latest episode, Frost said that after an exchange of e-mails, Lach agreed to reduce her fee to $20,500. She and her husband said they don't know what to do.