Adoption lawyer Linda Lach

Adoption lawyers such as Linda Lach of Hawaii, who says she has placed more than 100 babies with U.S. families, pocket fees of up to $13,500 for each child. Her office on Kauai is papered with pictures of adoptive children and their new parents. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin / November 2, 2003)

MAJURO, Marshall Islands - With four young children and a fifth on the way, a visibly pregnant Neji Johnny was an easy target for a recruiter for Adoption Choices, an American agency that scours the poverty-scarred streets of this remote Western Pacific atoll on the lookout for mothers willing to give up their babies.

In return for $300 in spending money, Johnny said she agreed to fly to Hawaii. As a resident of a former U.S. trust territory, she could travel without a visa. The adoption agency put her up at the rambling Moanalua Hillside Apartments in Honolulu with about 20 other expectant mothers from the Marshalls. Less than a month later she was taken to Queens Medical Center, where she gave birth to a healthy child Dec. 5.

Four days after that, Johnny signed legal documents written in English - a language she neither reads nor speaks - giving custody of her child to Adoption Choices. The transaction was approved by a judge, who was told in a court filing that she was a resident of Hawaii.

And that was the last she saw of "Baby Girl Johnny."

Adoption Choices charges prospective parents a fee - the going rate is about $25,000, including legal and other costs - for arranging the adoption of Marshall Islands babies such as Johnny's.

American taxpayers typically pay the medical expenses for such births under the Medicaid program.

Pregnant Marshallese "literally get off the plane and get enrolled in Medicaid," said David W. Heywood, vice president of Hawaii Pacific Health, which includes several major health facilities. "They [adoption agencies] seem to have gotten that down pretty well."

Johnny, 28, who said she had no idea that she was permanently relinquishing her infant, went home "angry and upset."

Three weeks earlier, the Marshall Islands had adopted a law drawn from a global treaty that prohibits the soliciting of pregnant women by offering them money, gifts and other benefits and transporting them out of the country to give birth for purposes of adoption. But the law is openly flouted in the small, impoverished country with a sky-high birthrate that increasingly serves as a breeding ground for American agencies fiercely competing with one another to provide babies to parents in the United States.

A lucrative industry

In recent years, the number of Marshallese children adopted as a percentage of the population has become by far the highest in the world, according to a University of Hawaii study, even as the price for each baby has more than doubled. With substantial fees at stake, the rivalry between adoption agencies has become so heated that they accuse each other of raiding birth mothers they have recruited.

Adoption Choices, which does business in Oklahoma, Colorado and Hawaii; Southern Adoptions of Philadelphia, Miss.; and adoption lawyer Linda Lach of Hawaii are at the forefront of a thriving and lucrative industry that has sprung up to profit from this burgeoning commerce in which each infant placed can bring $25,000.

"They are banking on the fact that no one will enforce [the law], said Jini Roby, a lawyer and professor of social work at Brigham Young University who was hired by the Marshallese government to set up a central agency to oversee adoptions. "It's just all this illegal moneymaking that troubles me."

Lawyers such as Lach pocket fees of up to $13,500 for each child. Recruiters, in effect professional baby-finders, search out pregnant women and take a cut of up to $2,500 for delivering them to Hawaii. Referral companies retained by anxious American couples charge as much as $2,500 to find a suitable child. Adoption agencies coordinate the process and rake in the rest.

The agencies staunchly defend their work, saying that the impoverished Marshallese mothers can't support their children and that they are saving youngsters' lives by rescuing them from mean, disease-ridden conditions.

"I think we are on the side of the angels," said Lach, who said she has placed more than 100 babies with families in the United States. Her office in Lihue on the island of Kauai is papered with pictures of adoptive children and their new parents, including Marshallese triplets who are now part of a Colorado family.

"My position is that as long as it is legal [in the United States], I'll do it," she said. "These moms need help."

But the emotional cost is incalculably high to birth mothers like Johnny, who typically do not fully understand what they are agreeing to and say they are deliberately misled by recruiters, known in the business as "facilitators."

"I don't know where she is," Johnny said of her daughter. "I'm really upset because they are not writing or contacting me."