The Bulldis family

In Ohio, John and Maryann Bulldis, who have four biological children, share a moment with adopted Marshallese sisters Hannah (left) and Emily. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin / November 3, 2003)

DAYTON, Ohio - Emily rode her plastic pony as Hannah, her younger, shyer sister, tested the patience of Annie, the family dog. Brandon needed a ride to work.

An average day for the Bulldis family, though not an average family.

Maryann, known on the Internet as "Maxed out Mom," and John Bulldis, both 40, are parents to four biological children, including Brandon, 14, and two adopted sisters, Emily and Hannah. The family - John is a major in the Air Force - recently moved from Germany to his new assignment at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

On a muggy August day in their new military-issue house without furniture, Emily, 5, and Hannah, 3, gather round a laptop to look at pictures of their birth mother, sisters and the speck of land in the Pacific - Ebeye, in the Marshall Islands - where their relatives live.

The scene reminds Maryann Bulldis of the day Emily got a videotaped message from her biological father, Alley Kinere.

"I love you, Emily," he said.

"She was so excited. 'Alley talked to me!' She was bouncing off the walls for three days. She was chained to the television. That made a huge difference. It was very emotional," Maryann Bulldis said.

Through pictures, videos, care packages and letters, the Bulldises are one of dozens of American families trying to maintain a link between the children they've adopted and the Pacific island that is their native land.

"We want to be part of that culture," John Bulldis said.

Contact and care

The Bulldis family, like many others who have adopted from the Marshall Islands, is constantly trying to bridge a gap far wider than the distance of nearly 7,000 miles that now separates them. Those who have studied Marshallese adoptions call it the "culture gap."

The experience and the growing popularity of Marshallese adoptions have left Maryann Bulldis with conflicting emotions.

"I think a lot of the time the adopting parents don't know what is happening," she said. "Just because someone is poor, you can't take their baby away. That's illegal. We're putting our judgment in place of theirs."

While the Bulldis family was fortunate in adopting two children without experiencing any legal complications, the Marshallese woman they dealt with as an intermediary, Joanne Pedro, played a key role in another adoption that became the subject of lawsuits in the United States and the Marshall Islands.

The islands' former clerk of courts accused Pedro of altering a document to make it appear that a birth mother had consented to giving up her child. Judges in both countries ultimately concluded that Pedro was involved in a "black market" for babies.

Pedro, who lives on Ebeye and says she is taking a break from arranging adoptions, denies the allegations.

Because of the prevalence of such problems, Bulldis said she would not recommend a Marshallese adoption to others. But she is committed to helping other adoptive parents learn all there is to know about the islands and their culture.

Adoptive parents are under no legal obligation to maintain contact with their child's birth parents or native land. But it is not unusual.

Families with adopted Marshallese children regularly communicate on the Internet and trade everything from pictures of their children to tips on health problems. RMI-kids, a Yahoo chat group, serves as a central meeting place.