HONOLULU, Hawaii - Despite a legal ban, U.S. adoption agencies are still luring pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to give birth and relinquish their newborns, according to the director of the western Pacific nation's new Central Adoption Authority.
"It comes dangerously close to child trafficking," said Michael Jenkins, noting that a law passed by the Marshall Islands Congress in 2002 requires that, as of last Oct. 1, all such adoptions go through that country's court system.
He said he had reports of at least five women being taken to Hawaii during the past month, based on observations of passengers departing from the nation's international airport.
Jenkins is in Hawaii to enlist the aid of government agencies to end the practice. He met this week with officials of the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security along with officials of various Hawaii state agencies.
"People think they are legal, but they are not," Jenkins said of the adoptions.
A Sun series last year reported that hundreds of Marshallese birth mothers have been flown to Hawaii, Oklahoma, Utah and other states to circumvent the island law. American parents have been paying fees of up to $30,000 to agencies to complete the adoptions, while the birthmothers say they receive only a few hundred dollars in pocket money.
As residents of a former U.S. trust territory, Marshallese mothers usually do not need visas to enter the country. But in December, President Bush approved an amendment to the Compact of Free Association, which governs relations between the two nations. Three senators say the new language requires Marshallese coming to the United States for the purposes of adoption to obtain a visa.
Sens. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who leads the Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees compact matters, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the panel, and Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and committee member, all called on the Department of Homeland Security to enforce the rule.
While in Hawaii, Jenkins spoke on Tuesday at a public forum on the issue organized by the group Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies of Hawaii. He said that one of the major obstacles in stopping the commerce in adoptive babies was that no Hawaii government agency had previously taken a lead role. As a result of meetings this week, the Hawaii Department of Human Services has agreed to assume that role, he said.
Jenkins said that 12 complaints of violations of the adoption law have been reported to his agency since Oct. 1. He said seven of the 12 were referred to the Marshalls attorney general and that two were likely to result in prosecutions. Violations of the law carry penalties of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each violation.
In one of the cases that could lead to criminal charges, he said, the reasons for applying for a passport were misrepresented. In the other case, he said, the father did not give his consent to the adoption.
Julie Walsh Kroeker, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii who first called attention to a sudden influx of Marshallese women giving up their children for adoption here, said her work showed that birth mothers lacked independent representation during adoptions.
Cindy S. Urbanc, a midwife with the Kalihi-Palama Health Center, said at the forum that she had learned that some Marshallese birth mothers had been coerced into giving a child up for adoption.
In one case, Urbanc said, she had trouble getting back the passport from the adoption agency for a birthmother who had changed her mind and wanted to go back home with her newborn.
Among those in attendance was Hawaii attorney Linda Lach, who has been involved in dozens of adoptions of Marshallese children.
Lach complained that all international adoptions from the Marshall Islands could be stopped due to the enforcement of the Marshallese law, and a Homeland Security provision requiring a declaration that any child brought into the United States for purposes of adoption had been abandoned for six months by the birth parent.
"You just shut off adoptions," Lach said.