Arkansas attorney Vaughn Cordes specializes in adoptions of children from the Marshall Islands, but says he does it legally by working with birth parents who have already established themselves in the United States rather than flying in pregnant women in violation of an international treaty.

A Kentucky couple who hired him say otherwise.

A civil lawsuit by the couple, Travis and Kristina Partin, and an ensuing bankruptcy filing by Cordes give glimpses into the scope and nature of Marshallese adoptions normally kept confidential.

These adoptions were the focus of a Civil Beat investigation published in November, “Black Market Babies.”

The Partins allege in the lawsuit that when a first adoption fell through, Cordes told them “that there was a pregnant lady in the Marshall Islands due to deliver a baby boy in December of 2017 that he could fly in for an adoption.”

The offer occurred when the Partins were driving home to Kentucky from Arkansas, according to their new attorney, Josh Bryant. They had just been through some confusing interactions with a Marshallese woman living in Arkansas who had committed through Cordes to place her newborn with them.

Children play in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. A recent Civil Beat investigation found that despite reforms made 20 years ago to ensure pregnant Marshallese women aren’t flown to the U.S. to give their babies up for adoption, abuses still occur. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

As they were driving, Cordes called to report that the woman, Jacklynn Aen, had never been pregnant at all and had been defrauding them.

“His immediate follow-through was ‘Don’t worry, we can fly a mother in from the Marshall Islands and have a baby next month,’” Bryant said.

Though the Partins were not aware of the Compact of Free Association, the treaty that bars Marshallese women from traveling to the U.S. for an adoption, they rejected Cordes’ offer, Bryant said.

“They decided it didn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

In a response to the Partins’ lawsuit, Cordes denied offering to fly in a new birth mother. He has declined to talk to Civil Beat about his practice. In November, after being sent a list of questions, he demanded that reporters not contact him again.

A month after the complaint was filed in October, Cordes filed for bankruptcy, listing the $1 million the Partins are seeking as a liability.

In his petition, he disclosed that in 2017, his gross income from his law practice, which focuses on Marshallese adoptions, was $285,000.

Reforms Didn’t Stick

Civil Beat’s investigation found that, despite a series of reforms two decades ago, a handful of lawyers in the U.S. defy the Compact of Free Association to arrange for pregnant birth mothers to fly from the Marshall Islands to give up their children in adoptions.

These adoptions undermine the official protections put in place to make sure that Marshallese birth parents understand the much different nature of adoptions in the U.S. Many Marshallese birth parents believe that their children will return to them as adults or that they are guaranteed to have continued contact. These characteristics of informal adoptions have long been a part of Marshallese culture.

Last spring, Cordes spoke to a reporter for Civil Beat’s podcast, Offshore, which also focused on Marshallese adoptions. At that time, Cordes said he drew the line at working with mothers who were flying straight in from the Marshalls.

“That’s not our policy,” he said, although he added he sometimes represents women who have been flown in by other lawyers and “dumped off” in poor living conditions, prompting their relatives in Arkansas to ask him for help.

Cordes worked closely with a well-known fixer, Justin Aine, who a year ago was stopped at the airport in the Marshall Islands capital of Majuro with two women who intended to give up their babies for adoption in Arkansas. But in the earlier podcast interview, Cordes suggested that Aine, an independent contractor, may have been working with other attorneys.

The Partins, whose lawsuit also named Aine, connected with Cordes on a Yahoo group. According to the lawsuit, they paid living expenses for birth mother Aen, but later were surprised to find out that some of the of the money went to seemingly inappropriate items, such as $180 for bailing someone out of jail.

Before they found out that Aen was not pregnant, the Partins traveled to Arkansas for a court hearing related to the adoption. Aen told them that her boyfriend was angry that all their expense money had been spent. She said that Aine, the fixer, told them to start working with a different attorney, according to the lawsuit.

In a later meeting with Cordes, they say, the lawyer referred to Aine as “a necessary evil.” When the Partins raised questions about birth mother Aen, Cordes said he had no reason to doubt her truthfulness because she had previously placed three children for adoption, according to the lawsuit.

Cordes, in his response to the lawsuit, offers one clue to the scope of the Marshallese baby business. He disclosed that Aine, the fixer, has been involved in 150 “successful adoptions” as an independent contractor. Aine is scheduled to be deposed Jan. 11.

Conflict Of Interest?

The lawsuit faults Cordes for failing to verify the pregnancy. In proposing to match the Partins with a new birth mother from the Marshalls, it alleges, “he improperly advised a course of action that is contrary to the law of the United States (the Compact of Free Association), which an attorney of reasonable skill and diligence would not have done.”

The lawsuit also accuses Cordes of having a conflict of interest in representing both the birth mother, Aen, and the Partins. Civil Beat’s investigation found other cases in which the allegiance of attorneys appeared blurred.

The Partins are asking for access to Cordes’ sealed adoption records. Other adoptive parents who have had problems with Cordes have contacted Bryant since the lawsuit was filed,  and opening the adoption records would give a sense of how many might be in a position to take part in a class action lawsuit.

The Partins say they are out $30,000, but are seeking punitive damages of $1 million. They also filed a complaint with the Arkansas office that disciplines attorneys.

At one point, Bryant said, Cordes offered $10,000 to settle the case, which the Partins rejected.

Shortly afterward, Cordes filed for bankruptcy.

Though Cordes reports gross income of $18,950 in the month of October, he states that his income has now “dropped to zero.” He wrote that he is seeking to practice in other areas of the law, “but there is a lot of uncertainty in how much, if any, will come in from month to month.”

He stated that he also owes an unknown amount to fixer Aine and birth mother Aen.

Aen, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in September to defrauding prospective adoptive parents and was sentenced to 20 years of probation and required to pay $14,924 in restitution, in addition to 28 days already served in jail.

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