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A duel for a daughter agonizes two families

SARASOTA, Fla. - For two families in Florida, the pain of an adoption gone wrong is plainly visible on their faces.

Carmen and Darlene Scoma talk sadly about the child from the Marshall Islands they thought they had legally claimed in Hawaii in 1997. For 4 1/2 years, Atina Erakdrik had been their daughter, until they lost her early last year after a bitter court battle.

"She's our daughter. She will always be our daughter," says Darlene Scoma, her voice quavering.

In Fruitland Park, 130 miles north, Atina's birth mother, Molly Juna, 31, who traveled more than 7,000 miles to reclaim her child, talks about the pain she endured during the protracted court fight.

"Very trying, very distressing," she says.

Courts in the United States and the Marshall Islands have denounced the child's "black market adoption," concluding that Juna had never properly consented to giving up her daughter. Atina was treated, said one judge, "as if she were some form of contraband."

"Spiriting a baby out of its home country, transferring possession of the baby to the prospective adoptive parents in Hawaii and the unauthorized transportation of the baby to Florida without bothering with a proper guardianship or even an enforceable power of attorney deserves the ugly name black market," wrote Judge H. Dee Johnson Jr. of the Marshall Islands High Court.

Atina's case is but one example of what can happen in the commerce in children from the poverty-ravaged Marshall Islands, where the number of youngsters adopted as a percentage of the population has become by far the highest in the world, even as the price for each child has soared to the current going rate of $25,000.

In another case, a young mother said she was coerced into taking her 7-year-old daughter to Utah to be adopted.

And in another, the adoptive father of two pre-teen girls was charged with molesting them in South Carolina.

Assessing blame

Now 7, the shy but playful Atina sits on a bench on a warm late-summer afternoon, waiting for a turn on the backyard swing that hangs from a huge, moss-draped oak that seems to defy gravity.

When her turn comes, Atina changes her mind. Instead, she plays with a toy camera, giggling as she mimics the photographer taking pictures of her.

She and her mother live with Kathryn Staton-Smith, a nurse who has adopted several children from the Marshall Islands and opened her doors to Juna, assisting in her quest to reunite her family.

Though Juna and the Scomas say they are barred by confidentiality orders from discussing details of the adoption case, some facts are evident.

The emotional scars preclude reconciliation. Those scars are unlikely to heal soon.

But while they disagree over much, both families point to the people who arranged the adoption as the ones to blame for the trauma they have suffered.

The Scomas have been absolved by the courts. They sued Hearts & Homes for Children, the now-defunct adoption agency to which they paid $17,000, and its executive director, Beverly McGurk, in Sarasota Circuit Court last year, alleging fraud and seeking restitution. The state of Florida, which licensed the agency, is named as a co-defendant.

Attorneys for Hearts & Homes have denied any wrongdoing on the part of their client, but a circuit court judge entered a default judgment against the agency Oct. 7, concluding that it was "involved in an illegal operation in the Marshall Islands." The agency is appealing the judge's ruling.

McGurk cannot be found, and lawyers for the Scomas have not been able to serve her with a copy of the lawsuit. Her last known address is in Costa Rica.

Hearts & Homes

The story of Atina's journey to the United States began in 1997, when the Scomas began to look into adoption, first by contacting local agencies such as Catholic Charities and by searching the Internet.

"We did a lot of research," says Carmen Scoma, who works in the health-care industry.

Eventually, they turned to Hearts & Homes, a local agency. With McGurk in the Marshall Islands at the time, Darlene Scoma met with a board member who described the widespread poverty, malnutrition and high child mortality rate in the Western Pacific islands.

"We really didn't know anything about it," she says.

The Scomas, both 42, were told that adopting a Marshallese child is less complicated than other foreign adoptions because islanders can travel freely to the United States.

The Scomas did more research, including a check with the Better Business Bureau, then met with McGurk in June when they signed a preliminary application. A month later they filled out a final application.

"We felt comfortable," says Carmen Scoma, adding that they had spoken with McGurk and organization board members. "We decided to go ahead."

Several months later the Scomas were told it was time to fly to Honolulu, where they would meet the birth mother and the child selected for them, a 16-month-old girl.

The Scomas and several other adoptive families, along with the birth mothers and children being placed for adoption, were put up at a Waikiki hotel in late 1997. The Scomas stayed for a week, meeting four times with Molly Juna and Atina.

While in Hawaii, they met Joanne Pedro, a woman from Ebeye, one of the Marshall Islands, who had arranged for Juna to give up her child. Pedro, the Scomas said, acted as translator because Juna did not speak English.

There was no hint that anything was amiss, the Scomas say, and they returned with Atina to Florida. They say they did not immediately file for adoption because they were relying on Hearts & Homes to advise them how to proceed.

On March 13, 1998, they received a letter from Juna. They decline to discuss the contents because it became part of the sealed adoption case, but the letter clearly changed everything.

From then on, the Scomas say, every ring of the phone, every mail delivery brought more apprehension.

Shortly after, they filed formal papers in Florida to adopt Atina, triggering the court battle that finally ended on Jan. 5, 2002, when the child was turned over to Juna.

Juna's side of the story is spelled out in court rulings in the Marshall Islands and Florida.

The strongest criticism was leveled at McGurk, who has disappeared.

Judge Vincent T. Hall Jr. of Sarasota Circuit Court wrote in a decision dated Dec. 13, 2001, that "unbeknownst" to the Scomas, "the adoption agency with which they were dealing was involved in an illegal operation in the Marshall Islands procuring black market babies for adoption in Florida."

Knowing consent

Documents filed in the Florida adoption petition indicated that Juna had given knowing consent. The judge found those documents and their verification questionable.

"The court finds that because of the cultural differences between an American adoption and a Marshallese adoption, the natural mother did not understand that the document she signed forever gave up her rights to the child. Even if there were a proper translation of the document from English to Marshallese, it is doubtful that she understood the consent and its terms," Hall wrote in the four-page ruling.

Interviewed on Ebeye recently, Billy Sampson, then clerk of courts on the island, said Joanne Pedro sought to make it appear that he had witnessed Juna signing Atina's adoption papers.

Sampson said he witnessed Pedro's signature when she came into his courthouse in 1997 but never saw Juna sign.

"It was very tricky," said Sampson, now a judge on the island.

In an interview in August, Pedro insisted that the Scoma adoption was perfectly legal and that Juna not only understood the adoption process but gave full consent.

"She signed willingly. We didn't force her," said Pedro, standing outside her one-room house on Ebeye.

Pedro, who declined to say exactly how much she was paid to find children for adoption, said she is taking a break from the business.

Asked if her fee was "a few hundred dollars," she said yes.

"I know how mothers feel about giving up their babies, but they don't have any choice. They go hungry. I myself have had hard times. I'm looking for a job," Pedro said.

"Maybe that's why they said that I sold babies. So I tell them, 'Come and see my house.' If I was selling babies, I'd have a rich house."

Johnson, who has left the bench to practice law in Majuro, called Atina's case a "classic example" of why the adoption of Marshallese children must be handled in island courts.

"We understand the customs. You have to talk to them [birth parents] and make sure they all understand exactly what is going on," Johnson says. "A very high percentage of the birth mothers misunderstand."

Both judges concluded that Juna did not give knowing consent to a permanent adoption as required under the laws of Florida and the Marshall Islands.

Johnson said the transaction violated criminal laws in the Marshall Islands and "in all probability" broke U.S. immigration laws.

"The risks to which this child was exposed by this mode of custody change are huge and are well-known to competent professionals who work in the commendable field of adoption and child welfare," the judge wrote. "It is quite clear that there was no such competent professional involved in this matter."

The Scomas are pursuing their lawsuit, but their lives are hardly back to normal.

"It is obviously catastrophic," says Carmen Scoma, adding that they had "unconditional love" for the child they lost. "It's been very, very difficult."

"We're living day to day," says Darlene Scoma.

They recently boxed up the things in Atina's room, but her bike still sits on the porch.

"We don't know what to do," Darlene Scoma says.

To others considering an adoption, especially from the Marshall Islands, the Scomas offer a warning.

"Adoption is a wonderful thing," says Darlene Scoma, "but you have to be very careful."

"There are supposed to be safeguards along the way," her husband says. "The state is supposed to oversee these agencies, but they still haven't pursued any action. The safety nets failed miserably."

Staton-Smith says Atina has adapted well since returning to her mother, that she's doing fine in school and is now in second grade. But there are still wounds to heal, and some topics are best avoided.

In her Fruitland home, Atina stands at the window, smiling playfully. And then she turns, tears streaming down her face.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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