This is article is part of Civil Beat’s investigative series “Black Market Babies.” Click here to read the other stories.
In 15 years, Meryann Lomae went from being an apparent victim in a shady Marshallese adoption to being convicted for committing adoption fraud herself.
In 2003, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun found Lomae living with other pregnant Marshallese women at an apartment complex in Red Hill. The women told the reporter that they had been recruited by a fixer in the Marshalls and given tickets to fly to Honolulu, where they would put up their newborns for adoption, despite a law in the island nation against soliciting.
The reporter did not quote Lomae, just mentioned she was there. But another Marshallese woman who’d been at the same apartment complex told the reporter she had no idea she was relinquishing her child for good and had lost contact with her after the adoption — a typical experience for the birth mothers.
Public records indicate the Lomae moved to Washington state sometime after the 2003 Baltimore Sun stories. In 2010 or so, she moved to Arkansas, home to the biggest Marshallese community in the United States and a hub of Marshallese adoptions.
In 2017, Arkansas attorney Vaughn Cordes contacted police to file a complaint about Lomae. Cordes said one of his facilitators, Justin Aine, had connected him with Lomae so that he could arrange an adoption for her unborn child.
Lomae signed an agreement to have her child adopted by a Kentucky couple, Cordes said, and accepted more than $13,000 for living expenses while she was pregnant.
Cordes and his associates had lost contact with Lomae when Cordes got a call from a worker at a local hospital. The worker also was trying to find the Marshallese woman. She told Cordes that Lomae had given birth a week or so before.
It turned out Lomae had started working with a different attorney who specializes in Marshall Islands adoptions, Paul Petersen. Her child had been adopted by a different family.
Lomae pleaded guilty in September and was sentenced to 120 days in jail. She also must pay $28,521 in restitution.
Lomae is one of several Marshallese women convicted of adoption fraud in Arkansas. Some of those familiar with the prosecutions have questioned whether the birth mothers are being forced to take all the blame while the role of lawyers and recruiters goes unexamined.
Petersen and his paralegal, Megan Wolfe, were listed as prosecution witnesses. But because Lomae pleaded guilty before going to trial, their role in Lomae’s change of attorneys never came out in court.
Matthew Long, an attorney for Petersen, declined to comment on the Lomae case but said in general Petersen’s adoption cases are subject to extensive reviews and he has never been found to be out of compliance with the law.
Kevin Lammers is an Arkansas public defender who represents many Marshallese women in this circumstance. While not commenting specifically on the Lomae case, he said he believes in general that private attorneys and fixers may mislead birth mothers about the terms of their agreements — or what it means to take money from two different lawyers. He thinks in some cases, women are pressured to switch lawyers.
“I have suspicions about what’s going on,” he said. “But until I can actually bring somebody into court that says that this was misrepresented to them… my hands are tied.”
He’s always recommended his clients take a plea deal — despite crippling restitution payments.
“These aren’t people who really have the means to be making these payments,” he said. “But I know I can’t have my clients go to a trial where the perception is that this is a business for them in this community and face five to 20 years in Arkansas prison.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?