By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 26) — Some United States-based adoption agencies have halted operations in the Marshall Islands in response to a new law that requires licensing of all companies involved in adoptions.

"But it’s also clear that a handful of agencies are trying to get around the new law," Michael Jenkins, the acting director of the recently established Central Adoption Authority, said in an interview Wednesday.

His agency is already receiving reports of illegal adoption activities by U.S.-based companies that have made a big business out of adopting Marshall Islands children to American families.

Despite the new law, which makes facilitation or encouragement of adoption illegal, "facilitation" of adoptions continues in the Marshall Islands, he said. But the law provides for fines of up to $1,000 and a maximum of three years in jail for anyone found guilty of soliciting adoptions. The law was imposed by the government to get a grip on the hundreds of adoptions being conducted "off-shore" by adoption agencies that, according to a recent Baltimore Sun report, charged as much as $25,000 per adoption.

As people realize that the new Central Adoption Authority is now in operation, Jenkins has been receiving reports about illegal adoption activity in the Marshalls.

"Last week, the father of a young teenage daughter reported that she had been escorted out of the Marshall Islands by a known, non-licensed agency without his consent," Jenkins said. "This violates the child abuse and neglect act (law)." He said it borders on kidnapping.

Another recent report came from an American on Ebeye Island whose Marshallese wife went to Hawaii to deliver their child. "She was solicited while in Hawaii by adoption agents," Jenkins said of the husband’s report. "His child is now being given up for adoption without his consent."

Jenkins noted that in the U.S., the biological father’s rights are strongly protected.

These and other reports have been turned over to the Attorney General’s Office for possible investigations. "The CAA is not the policeman, it’s the watchdog," Jenkins said.

Adoptions in the Marshall Islands High Court have dropped significantly — there is only one in progress under the new law that went into effect on Oct. 1. "Whether adoption activity dropped off (elsewhere) is anyone’s guess," Jenkins said.

He commented that it’s not illegal for a Marshallese woman to go to Hawaii to give birth. "It’s the solicitation for adoption that makes it illegal," he said.

What has made the Marshall Islands a focus of more than 10 U.S. adoption agencies is the ease with which islanders can enter the U.S. through a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. government. The Compact provides visa-free entry to the U.S. by Marshall Islanders. Adoption agencies and attorneys have used this clause to bring hundreds and perhaps thousands — nobody knows how many — of pregnant women to deliver their babies and give them up for adoption to American families.

A recent series of articles on Marshall Islands adoptions to Americans published by the Baltimore Sun reported that Marshallese agents who locate babies and children for adoption earn between $500 and $2,500 for each adoption.

Jenkins said that under the new law, in order for a U.S. adoption agency to gain a license, it must:

• Be properly licensed in the U.S.

• Demonstrate compliance with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

• Demonstrate awareness of the Hague Convention on Adoptions.

• Voluntarily disclose all information about previous adoption activities in the Marshall Islands.

• Pay a license fee of $2,500 the first year, with $1,500 for each renewal year.

Jenkins said the requirement of "voluntary full disclosure" is already "causing lots of controversy" with agencies that have been advised by him of the new requirements for licensing.

Agencies have argued that providing this information would violate privacy laws. Jenkins said the government isn’t seeking names, but rather wants statistical information on each adoption. "The government has no numbers and has a right to have the information," he said.

December 29, 2003

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