For Valerie Shefik, the effort to adopt a second Marshallese child led to what she calls one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of her life.
Valerie, 44, and her husband, Robert, 46, first adopted a Marshallese child in late 1997 through the TLC Adoption Agency in Washington state. The boy's adoption was approved by the Arizona courts and went smoothly.
Nearly three years later, the Scottsdale, Ariz., couple were exploring the possibility of another adoption when Valerie Shefik got a call from TLC around Thanksgiving, telling her that a 7-year-old Marshallese girl "had to be placed quickly."
The fee was about $12,000.
Two weeks later, the Shefiks went to Salt Lake City to meet the child and her birth mother, who were being accompanied on a flight from the Marshall Islands by Sarah Maun, a Marshallese facilitator.
Maun was working with a Utah woman, Susan Graser, who at the time was arranging adoptions without a license and was doing business with TLC.
"As soon as they got off the plane I could tell there was something terribly wrong," Shefik said. She said the birth mother was cuddling her child "and wouldn't even look at us. She wanted nothing to do with us."
Shefik said she had arranged for the child, Bernice, and her birth mother, Niebed Erakdrik, to stay with them for a few days, but things only grew worse.
"It was very difficult. Just horrible. I was distraught," Shefik said. "The birth mother was crying.
"It was very obvious the birth mother was very unhappy," said Shefik, who couldn't find out why because Erakdrik spoke no English. Shefik said the situation was further complicated because Bernice was sick and needed to see a doctor.
In desperation, Shefik called an acquaintance who speaks Marshallese and had her speak to Erakdrik on the phone. Without her, Shefik said, "I never would have known what really happened."
The translator told Shefik that Erakdrik said Maun "coerced" her into giving up the child by telling her she would bring shame on her family if she didn't go through with the adoption.
Shefik called off the adoption and insisted that the mother and daughter be flown home. The adoption fee was quickly refunded, and the Shefiks later adopted a Chinese girl through another agency.
"I would not touch [the Marshall Islands] again," Shefik said. "There's just too much money to be made on this."
She still wonders what happened to Bernice.
TLC officials say they no longer do adoptions from the Marshall Islands and that they severed their relationship with Graser and Maun in the wake of the Shefik case.
Graser and Maun still arrange adoptions of children from the Marshall Islands.
Graser, after coming under investigation by the state of Utah for running an unlicensed adoption agency, subsequently started Noah's Ark Adoptions, a licensed, for-profit corporation.
She said she has four or five facilitators in Majuro, including Maun, who help her new company find mothers and pregnant women who want to put their children up for adoption.
Maun said she has arranged about 80 adoptions over the past five years and now works with Noah's Ark and LDS Family Services, which is affiliated with the Mormon church. She said she collects a fee of $750 for each adoption.
In an interview in Majuro, Maun denied having coerced anyone and insisted that if birth mothers changed their minds, she immediately complied with their wishes.
Calling her adoption activities "a humanitarian effort," Graser denied that the birth mother in the Shefik adoption or in any other case she has handled was coerced.
"They have ample opportunity to understand," said Graser, adding that she provides translators and has all written agreements translated into Marshallese. "They know what they are doing."
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