'At least they have a chance'

MAJURO, Marshall Islands -- A half-dozen people, birth mothers and baby sitters, sat on couches or on the floor in a modern house, holding gurgling newborns destined for adoption by American couples. Some of the infants already had been matched with American parents.

Among them was Rosita Lamgrin, 21, who had just given birth to her fifth child, the first she'd decided to give up for adoption.

In a nearby bedroom, another mother was changing a diaper.

Cuddling a soon-to-be adopted baby was Lina Morris, operator of the Pacific Children Adoption Agency, who pioneered the Marshall Islands to Hawaii commerce in mothers and their newborns.

When the Marshall Islands, concerned about the rapidly escalating number of adoptions by foreigners, declared a moratorium in 1999, it was Morris, with Hawaiian lawyer Linda Lach, who came up with a strategy to circumvent the ban by flying pregnant women to Hawaii, a practice a law adopted last November is designed to prevent. Morris said she no longer sends women to Hawaii, and that all the adoptions she arranges go through the High Court of the Marshall Islands. A new Central Adoption Authority for the island nation began operating Oct. 1.

Overall, Morris said, she has arranged for about 100 adoptions, working with American agencies, since getting into the business more than five years ago.

"When people think of adoptions, they think of me," she said.

The agencies typically charge an overall fee of $25,000 per adoption. Her share is $2,500. Her brother-in-law, Dennis Reeder, who practices law in Majuro, collects another $2,500, which includes $750 in court filing fees.

Reeder, in response to written questions, said he doubts that the new Marshall Islands law creating a central adoption agency will stop the illegal practices.

"I am willing to give it a chance, but I do not think that it will work and will actually end up forcing mothers to go to Hawaii," Reeder said.

Morris, who formerly operated Lina's Collections, a hobby, toy and game shop, said she got into the baby business inadvertently when a maternity nurse at Majuro Hospital asked if she knew anyone who would take a baby that couldn't be cared for by the mother.

She said birth mothers "come to me" and are not solicited, a practice barred by the law that set up the adoption authority last year. Morris said she is proud of what she does.

She said she has heard all the ugly rumors, even one that babies were being sold for body parts.

"I say, 'No!' to all the rumors," Morris said.

Asked if it troubles her that so many Marshallese babies are leaving the country for adoption, Morris said: "Yes, it's sad. But there are no jobs here. At least they have a chance."

Morris acknowledged that there are sometimes problems getting birth mothers to understand that an American adoption is forever, but said she does her best to make it clear.

"I think there are some who do not understand what they are doing," she said. "I try to make them understand. The court now asks the mother if she understands.

"Sometimes, mother will say, 'Yes! Yes!' but not understand," she said. "It has not happened to me."

Morris introduced the other mothers along with baby sitters who tend to their needs until the day they'll hand over the infants to their new parents.

"It's always hard," said Morris. "I've never seen a mother not cry."