The adoption “journey” of a North Dakota couple illustrates some of the heartache, misunderstanding and ugliness that can occur in the freewheeling world of Marshallese adoptions.
This is article is part of Civil Beat’s investigative series “Black Market Babies.” Click here to read the other stories.
It included two failed attempts in which birth mothers were working simultaneously with lawyers representing other adoptive families, as well as accusations that the third child’s serious medical conditions were concealed.
Timothy and Roxane Cartwright started out trying to adopt through the official process laid out by the government of the Marshall Islands.
They’d already been on the waiting list for almost two years and were finally starting the process when the agency announced it was no longer matching Marshallese babies with families living in the U.S., only those living abroad.
The Cartwrights noticed that people behind them on the waiting list were adopting babies born to Marshallese families already living in Arkansas by working through private attorneys.
In 2016, they interviewed lawyers and settled on one, Vaughn Cordes, known to specialize in Marshallese adoptions. Within two weeks, they were matched with a Marshallese birth mother.
The parties involved give conflicting accounts of what happened next, but the bottom line was this: The birth mother had been working with a different attorney at the same time, and decided to give her child to the adoptive family he represented.
Cordes then matched the Cartwrights with another pregnant Marshallese woman in Arkansas, Angela Emos.
Roxane Cartwright said she and Emos hit it off right away, texting and talking daily.
But before too long, the adoption went badly awry, according to an arrest warrant affidavit in a fraud case later brought against Emos.
Emos routinely asked for money beyond the agreed-upon $1,400 a month. If the Cartwrights refused the extra payments, they told police, Emos would text messages such as “Do you want your baby to starve?”
The relationship continued to deteriorate, with Emos at one point admitting she had been using the Cartwrights for money and promising to pay it all back when she got an expected tax refund, according to the affidavit.
When Cartwright threatened to go to the police, Emos texted, “Please, I love you. And I love my baby.”
After Emos cut off contact, Cartwright told Civil Beat, she noticed a Facebook picture of her with palm trees in the background. It turns out she had started working with a Hawaii attorney, Laurie Loomis, who eventually placed the baby with a different family.
Emos pleaded guilty to fraud in September and was sentenced to 120 days in jail and ordered to pay $12,000 in restitution. She’s one of several Marshallese birth mothers who have been convicted of fraud for working with more than one lawyer and adoptive family at a time. Some have questioned why the investigations focus only on the birth mothers and not the attorneys and handlers who worked with them despite their prior commitments to other adoptive families.
A short time after the Emos adoption fell through, the Cartwrights were matched yet again with a Marshallese mother.
A week before the birth, Roxane Cartwright told Civil Beat, the birth mother told her there was something wrong with the baby’s brain. Cartwright said she checked with Justin Aine, a handler for Cordes, who dismissed it as a minor problem.
She then tried to check with the birth mother’s doctor, who said he couldn’t discuss it because the birth mother had not signed a release form. The birth mother, in turn, told Cartwright that she had been instructed not to sign the form — she didn’t specify who had told her that or why.
Shortly after the birth mother went into labor and the Cartwrights arrived from North Dakota, “The nurse said, `So you’re adopting this baby? Are you aware of the anomalies?’ I looked at her and said, `Anomalies? What?’”
Two doctors, Cartwright said, took her to a waiting room and explained that the baby girl, Sofia, might have a serious heart defect and a cyst in her brain that could prevent her from ever walking.
“I don’t want this to come out where people think I wish I didn’t have my daughter, because I love my daughter,” Roxane said through tears. “She’s my everything.”
But she blames Cordes for failing to disclose the medical problems.
Civil Beat sent a list of questions to Cordes about his adoption practices, including whether he was aware of Sofia’s medical conditions and whether he asked the birth mother not to sign a consent form allowing the Cartwrights to review medical information.
Cordes declined to respond, saying “It is clear from the limited questions you submitted to me that you and the individuals you have talked to are out to do a hatchet piece using lies, innuendo, and twisted half truths … I will not legitimize your story by any participation in it.”
Sofia’s heart was fine. But when she was 9 months old, she starting tipping over a lot. Tests showed a cyst over much of the back part of her brain. After two brain surgeries, “you’d never know she had any of these issues,” Cartwright said. “She is a walking miracle. No one can explain her.”
Still, Cartwright said, “This will never go away, this is a lifelong condition. I feel that Vaughn should have told us.”
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