Pact on adoption lacks enforcement schedule

Marshall Islands, U.S. still working on timing for 3-month-old changes

April 02, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

More than three months after President Bush signed an amended international agreement that could halt a "frenzy" of adoptions of Marshall Islands children in Hawaii and Utah, no schedule to enforce the pact has been worked out between the State Department and the small country in the western Pacific.

"The delay in implementation is jeopardizing the integrity of the adoption process and encouraging a frenzy of unethical adoptions," said Jini Roby, a Utah professor and attorney who has been serving as an unpaid consultant to the Marshall Islands government on the adoption issue and who helped write the country's adoption statute. It bans the solicitation of pregnant women for the purposes of adoption and also bars transporting them out of the country.

"Profit-motivated individuals" are bringing pregnant women into the United States and "having them relinquish their children under questionable circumstances," she charged.

In a letter to Sen. Peter V. Domenici, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Pamela J. Turner acknowledged that amendments to the agreement, known as the Compact of Free Association, "preclude the practice of allowing birth mothers" from the Marshall Islands to enter the U.S. "visa free."

However, the letter states, the provisions are "not yet in effect" and "can only enter into force on a date mutually agreed upon" by the U.S. and Marshall Islands governments.

The Sun reported in November that American couples have been paying fees of up to $30,000 to adopt children from the island nation. Birth mothers, solicited by "facilitators" for adoption agencies, have been paid up to $100 a week and provided with food and lodging in the United States until they deliver the babies to the American couples.

The compact, which dates to 1986, governs relations between the United States and the former trust territory. Generally, it allows Marshall Islands citizens to come and go from the United States without a visa, but not when the purpose is to complete an adoption. Bush signed the amended version on Dec. 17.

In early January, Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, and two other senators wrote Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, asking him to enforce the adoption clauses of the amendments.

Once the Department of State secures implementation of the compacts, "DHS stands ready" to enforce it, Turner's letter says.

"Both governments desire expeditious implementation of the amended compact," a State Department spokeswoman said, adding that officials from the two countries were developing "procedural steps" necessary before implementation. She declined to comment further.

Setting an implementation schedule is the task of the State Department's Office of Compact Negotiations, headed by a retired Army colonel, Albert V. Short.

Roby and island officials say the delays are just one of the roadblocks they are encountering with state and federal officials in efforts to end questionable Marshallese adoptions.

Recently, Roby and island government officials tried but failed to get Hawaii state officials to investigate reports of a series of adoptions of newborn children whose mothers were transported from the Marshall Island. Under the country's law, all adoptions are supposed to go through a year-old central adoption authority and that country's court system.

"These activities ... rob the women of legal and ethical protections," Roby said.

She also warned that adoptive families could face unexpected legal problems because once the law is implemented it will retroactively affect any Marshall Islands adoptions after March 1 of last year. She noted that the Marshall Islands government has thus far approved only one adoption agency, Journeys of the Heart, based in Oregon.

Michael Jenkins, who heads the Marshall Islands central adoption authority, said that when he recently tried to get Hawaiian authorities to investigate a suspected illegal adoption, they rebuffed his efforts.

"We were just blown off," said Jenkins. "I told them, I'm calling to report a potential child endangerment, and they said, `We are not going to receive your report.' I said, `Listen, if I were to call in and report a suspected abuse of an Hawaiian child, what would you do?' They said, `We'd investigate.'

"So I said, `What about a Marshallese?' There was no answer," Jenkins said, calling the situation "bizarre and bordering on racism.

Officials of the Hawaii Department of Human Services declined to respond to Jenkins' comments.

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