Facilitators play key role in adoption of Marshall Island children

Marshallese Islanders living on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i have drawn flak for helping to bring Marshallese birthmothers to Hawai‘i to give birth to children who are snapped up by willing adoptive parents from the United States.

As contacts in Hawai‘i, facilitators have allegedly circumvented a one-year-old Marshall Islands law that seeks to better regulate adoptions and makes it a crime to solicit birthmothers in the island nation, according to Dr. Julie Walsh Kroeker, a Hawai‘i resident who has done extensive research on adoptions of Marshallese children.

Ano Lauties who has lived on Kaua‘i since 1999, has acted as a “facilitator” and knows of other facilitators. He thinks the criticism is ill-deserved.

“Marshall Islands very poor,” Lauties said. “It is better to send them to America than to live there, to be put in graveyard. In the United States, the mother get care, and the children get good life.”

The Hawai’i-based facilitators can’t be cited under the law because the legislation applies only to the Marshall Islands, which is located 2,500 southwest of Hawai‘i.

But the work of facilitators in Hawai‘i contributes to the breakup of families and could generate grief and apprehension for birthmothers who go through with the adoptions, Walsh Kroeker said.

Kaua‘i attorney Linda Lach, who has handled up to 75 Marshall Islands adoptions since 1996, said the law is not aimed at adoption agencies, lawyers or the adoptive parents.

The law is aimed at “the facilitator in the Marshall Islands, and the Marshall Islands government knows perfectly who they are,” Lach said. From her point of view, “it is not unethical or illegal for a Marshallese to facilitate birthmothers from the Marshall Islands to Hawai‘i,” she said.

If they are used, facilitators will ultimately place birthmothers at crossroads in their lives.

Birthmothers are allowed to pursue domestic adoptions through the “compact of free association,” a treaty between the United States and the Marshall Islands.

Or the birthmothers may reject the idea of adoption and resign themselves to limited medical and financial resources in the homeland.

Ano Lauties said he acted as a paid facilitator for two months in 1999, and, from time to time, met birthmothers at churches Marshallese islanders attended on Kaua‘i.

Word also spread back home that Lauties could be counted on to help connect Marshallese birthmothers with adoption agencies and attorneys representing potential adoptive parents from the United States.

Lauties said while the facilitators in Hawai‘i made some money assisting with adoptions, they felt they weren’t breaking the law, as adoptions are commonplace in the history of the Marshall Islands.

Lauties said the facilitators also felt they were helping birthmothers reach a better station in life for themselves and their children.

The Marshall Islands law establishes a central adoption agency to regulate adoptions of Marshallese children and prohibits the solicitation of birthmothers to give up their children for adoption.

In addition, the law prohibits families or others in the Marshall Islands from pressuring birthmothers into giving up their children or bribing them to do so.

The Marshall Island law came about after government officials saw an explosion of 500 adoptions of Marshallese children by Americans from 1996 to 1999, compared with about seven adoptions annually in previous years.

All came before a moratorium was instituted by the Marshall Islands to control the rate of adoptions and intervention by the U.S. Immigration Service to prevent adoption-related abuses.

The Marshallese children were highly sought after because there were no detailed adoption regulations in place, and adoptive parents didn’t have to wait long to get the children.

Of the 500 reported Marshallese adoptions that took place between 1996 and 1999, Walsh Kroeker said most occurred on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Some Marshallese birthmothers gave birth at Wilcox Hospital, and Hawai‘i was used as a gateway for many children to get to new homes in the mainland.

As a first step toward controlling adoptions of Marshallese children and protecting them, the Marshall Islands court system required a home study of adoptive parents, Walsh Kroeker said.

The Marshall Islands government took a more stern step, imposing a moratorium for 1999 to 2000 to get a clearer picture of the adoption trends, Walsh Kroeker said.

The law was subsequently passed by the Marshall Islands parliament, but applies only to the island nation, she said.

U.S. Immigration Service officials voiced concerns about how adoptions were conducted in the late 1990s.

Lach said people flew to the Marshall Islands, acquired children and flew back to the United States and called the children their own. They did so without having to go through requirements that existed in “international adoptions,” she said.

These type of adoptions are undertaken by many countries, including Russia and China and those in South America.

The U.S. Immigration Service subsequently declared the adoptions of Marshallese children as “international adoptions,” and now requires adoptive parents from the United States to obtain a special visa before an adopted child can enter the United States and become a citizen.

The lengthy paperwork and red tape that are part of international adoptions are not part of domestic adoptions. The Marshallese child who is born in Hawai‘i becomes a citizen and can be put up for adoption after birth.

Adoption agencies have offices and staffers in the Marshall Islands. As a shield against the Marshall Islands law on soliciting, the agency staffers have contended birthmothers sought them out.

Adoption agency staffers may not seek out the birthmothers physically, but the agencies advertise or attorneys advertise in publications.

Birthmothers may be convinced to pursue adoptions because of America’s experience in the Marshall Islands that goes back 50 years, Walsh Kroeker said.

“Americans hold positions of high status within the Marshallese hierarchy,” she said in a report on adoptions. “This is due to the long-standing perception of America as a powerful and benevolent provider, and a source of knowledge, technology, missionaries and other valued resources in local lives.”

This history of America and its long-standing ties with the Marshall Islands have contributed to “the high valuation of Americans as potential parents,” Walsh Kroeker wrote.

Her assessments were part of a report she presented at “An Out of Oceania Conference,” which was sponsored in 1999 by the Center for Pacific Islanders at the University of Hawai‘i Manoa campus.

Lauties said the U.S. Immigration Service and the Marshall Islands government have no right to regulate international or domestic adoptions. Philosophically, that right rests with God only, he said.

“God adopted Jesus Christ. I am a religious person, so adoption is not for the United States or my government to decide It is for God to decide.”

Lauties said he is helping to facilitate the adoption of his niece’s child to a couple in the mainland. The child was born on Kaua‘i a year ago.

Lauties is playing a major role in deciding whether the adoption becomes official.

If the adoptive parents do not allow for an “open adoption,” which allows for continual exchange between the birthmother and child, the adoption proceedings will be canceled, Lauties said.

Lauties said he won’t give his consent if the child is not allowed to return home as an adult and a build a home in the Marshall Islands.

Other Marshallese birthmothers, perhaps helped by facilitators, are staying in apartments on O‘ahu established by adoption agencies while they wait to give birth.

In all those cases she has handled, Lach said she has “never come across a situation where the mother was coerced into giving up her baby.”

Regardless of what facilitators or others will tell the Marshallese birthmothers, the final decision on adoptions rests with the mother, Lach said.

The number of adoptions on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu of Marshall Islands children was stated as 500 in the first part of this report published Sunday due to an editing error. An estimate of 100 has been given for the number of local adoptions.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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