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A Texas lawyer is arranging adoptions that involve birth mothers flown from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. in defiance of a treaty between the two nations, and has told U.S. clients she has done it repeatedly.
“Yes, it’s legal to pay for tickets,” Jody Hall, who runs a Dallas agency called Adoptions International, wrote a prospective adoptive mother who questioned it. Hall’s interpretation is at odds with those of the Marshall Islands government and U.S. Department of State.
The woman expressed qualms, having just spent more than $13,000 on a failed adoption Hall set up involving a Marshallese birth mother in Arkansas who decided to keep the baby.
“It’s easier to control these because we buy the tickets,” Hall responded, according to a text provided by the woman. “That way they can’t change the tickets. We placed 3 in the past 3 weeks.”
Hall said the fees would include money paid to “helpers in Honolulu” who would pick up the Marshallese woman and her baby at the airport and take them to a hotel during the long layover.
In a series published in November, Civil Beat documented how a handful of U.S. lawyers ignore the Compact of Free Association between the two nations to fly women from the Marshall Islands for adoptions. Hall was not a part of that story.
The treaty and Marshall Islands law restricted adoptions in the U.S. in response to lurid stories two decades ago of Marshallese women being exploited. Even now, as in the 1990s, the women often believe they will maintain contact with their children as they likely would in the Marshall Islands, which has a long tradition of informal “child sharing” in which parental rights are never terminated.
The black market pipeline continues to thrive, boosted by recent entrants such as Hall, even as authorities, for the most part, appear to do nothing. Hall is in good standing with the State Bar of Texas, the Texas agency that regulates adoption agencies and has even been accredited as meeting the Hague convention on international adoptions.
Hall in recent years has worked with Justin Aine, a well-known adoption fixer who in March was charged in the Marshall Islands with human trafficking for his alleged involvement in facilitating Marshallese adoptions in the U.S.
Aine, despite facing a serious charge carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years, has left the Marshall Islands and is back in Arkansas, where he has lived and worked as an adoption facilitator for many years, according to several people there.
It’s unknown whether Aine is still working with Hall. In the past, Aine has transported Marshallese women from Arkansas to Hall’s Dallas office for adoptions. It’s legal for Marshallese women already in the U.S. when they became pregnant to participate in adoptions.
But these transactions raise other questions. Two of these women say they were promised or asked for contact information for the parents who adopted their children, but never got it and now don’t know where they are. Aine, they say, did all the translating.
“I really want to see my child,” Emy Lejjena told Civil Beat last year after she drove with Aine from Arkansas to Texas to give up her 2-year-old child for adoption.
Hall did not respond to a list of questions emailed to her this month. Last year, reached briefly by phone, she declined to comment. Aine could not be reached for comment.
Several prospective adoptive parents told Civil Beat that Hall lined up adoptions with women living in the Marshall Islands and then asked them to cover the airfare, in some cases including tickets for other family members.
Heather Ottinger, who lives in Pennsylvania, said she started working with Hall last year. In mid-July, Ottinger and her husband Tim were excited to learn they had been matched with a Marshallese woman they were told was in Texas, due in only a week.
But the baby was not born until five months later, a couple of weeks before Christmas. The Ottingers traveled to Dallas, only to learn that the baby had been born not in Texas, but in Arkansas.
And then, a few days later, Hall told them that the birth mother had decided to keep the baby. The Ottingers by that time had paid about $19,000 for birth mother expenses and Hall’s fees.
Jody Hall openly proposes to U.S. couples that they fly women in from the Marshall Islands for adoptions, but government officials in both nations state unequivocally that it violates the law.
After the adoption fell through, Heather Ottinger said, Hall offered to match her with a birth mother living on the island of Ebeye in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Ottinger said Hall told her she and her husband would have to cover the air fare. Hall added she might line up another expectant mother in the Marshalls in a couple weeks.
The Ottingers, concerned about the possibility of losing thousands of dollars again with little accounting of where it went, said no. They ended up adopting a child from Florida through a different agency.
Another Hall client, also in Pennsylvania, went through a similar experience. This client asked not to be named in this story because she now believes the agency is disreputable and does not want to be associated with it. She provided emails and texts she exchanged with Hall, acknowledging that Hall would recognize who had provided them.
The client and her husband were told the Marshallese birth mother, living in Texas, was due at the end of August. But the woman did not give birth until January – in Arkansas. After weeks of confusion and conflicting messages, Hall finally told the Pennsylvania client that the Marshallese mother had decided to keep the baby because she believed it would be a way to get back an ex-boyfriend.
In this case, too, Hall had a backup plan — birth mothers living in the Marshall Islands.
One was a woman who had already given birth. “It takes about 10 days to 2 weeks to get the govt papers for the baby to travel,” Hall wrote, according to a text provided by the client.
She sent pictures of the birth mothers and described the route they would take to the U.S. “They fly from the M.I. to Hawaii and then to Dallas,” she texted.
When the Pennsylvania client asked about fees, Hall responded, “Justin is in Hawaii and said he’ll try to get all the fees for us tomorrow.”
In an email, the would-be adoptive mother asked Hall whether the birth mother shouldn’t cover that expense of flying to the U.S. herself.
“It’s hard to grasp the reality of the level of poverty these people live in,” Hall responded. “If they had the money to buy their tickets to come over, they would already be here. We placed a child two weeks ago and the adoptive family paid for the bmom (birth mother), bfather, 2 children under 4 years and baby to come here. The birth family showed up with only one backpack full of belongings.”
Hall mentioned, “I am working with a lady in the islands that helps the birth moms get all the documents needed. She drives them to and from appointments with government offices. She is trustworthy but she lives there.”
Other adoptive parents said they had been given a contact in the Marshall Islands to work with.
Though Hall openly proposes to U.S. couples that they fly women in from the Marshall Islands for adoptions, government officials in both nations state unequivocally that it violates the law.
The Central Adoption Authority, the Marshallese agency created to handle all international adoptions as part of the nation’s reforms, told Civil Beat last year that Marshallese women may not travel to U.S. for the purposes of adoptions without a visa. Most Marshallese can travel visa-free.
The U.S. Department of State agreed with that interpretation. Both governments say the prohibition applies even if the Marshallese woman is still pregnant when she travels or plans to stay in the U.S. after giving birth.
In 2011, a Utah woman who specialized in Marshallese adoptions was convicted of aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien. Teresa Snow had paid the airfare for a Marshallese woman to travel to the U.S. for an adoption, provided housing and taken her to medical appointments.
Yet if any government entities are investigating the lawyers currently arranging such adoptions, they have not made any public announcements, filed charges or taken disciplinary action against their licenses.
Meanwhile, two Marshallese women who have given up children for adoption through Hall say they drove from Arkansas to Texas with Aine, who provided translation, and that they have been unable to make contact with the adoptive families.
In 2018, after driving with Aine to Hall’s Dallas office, Emy Lejjena said she handed over her toddler son B.J. to a couple that she thinks lives in Alabama. She doesn’t know for sure, she said, because Aine never gave her the contact information, as promised, and then blocked her on Facebook. She and her brother went to Aine’s house to try to find out, but he wouldn’t answer the doorbell, she said.
Lejjena told Civil Beat that the adoptive parents said that she would be able to visit her son monthly and that they would help with her living expenses. Lejjena said the Alabama couple and attorney Hall, with Aine translating, promised her son would return at 18. She said she would not have consented to a closed adoption.
Hall provided Lejjena a copy of an affidavit in which she relinquishes her parental rights. It says that she chose not to be represented by an attorney or to go to court. Even if she and the adoptive parents agreed to post-adoption contact, it states, the agreement is not enforceable and “I am not executing this Affidavit based on any promise made for post adoption contact.”
But Lejjena’s father Julius, a former Marshall Islands police officer living in California who shared a copy of the affidavit with Civil Beat, said that the copy his daughter received was not signed by her or notarized. He believes that Aine lured his daughter into the adoption with the promise of money and “other good things in life.”
The affidavit states that the child’s father, Glass Glass, abandoned Emy Lejjena and the child and didn’t support them, and that Emy did not know his whereabouts.
But Julius Lejjena provided Civil Beat a copy of a letter he said was written by Glass, stating that he was “surprised” by the adoption, which he did not consent to. He asks authorities to “seek justice and freedom for my son.”
Thelma Jitiam, another Marshallese birth mother in Arkansas, also agreed to an adoption arranged by Jody Hall, according to Brenda Austin, a Fayetteville attorney who represented a Colorado couple that believed that they were going to adopt Jitiam‘s child.
According to Austin, the Colorado couple paid Jitiam’s living expenses for several months when Aine called them to say she had changed her mind and wanted to keep the baby.
But soon afterwards, Austin said, the couple went through adoption networks in Texas and learned about Hall, who sent them a photograph of Jitiam’s baby, saying the child was available for adoption.
Austin said Jitiam accepted a lump sum payment of $3,000 for the adoption arranged by Hall. After Austin complained to authorities, Jitiam was arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft. Her case is pending.
Austin provided Civil Beat a video of a jailhouse interview she conducted with Jitiam through a translator. Jitiam said that she asked for the adoptive parents’ names and contact information, but got nothing.
She said she signed a paper but didn’t get a copy of it. Aine, she said, did all the interpreting.
Several people in Arkansas say that Aine has been seen there after the charges in the Marshall Islands were filed against him in March.
“On a weekly basis, I’m dealing with someone who’s had a run-in with him,” said Michaela Montie, executive director of Shared Beginnings, a Fayetteville organization that advocates for women considering adoption for their children.
In late May, for instance, some adoptive parents considering using Shared Beginnings were contacted by Aine, who then accompanied a prospective Marshallese birth mother to an ultrasound appointment.
Montie said Aine is representing himself as an adoption consultant and telling parents he doesn’t need any money, leaving it unclear how he is getting paid.
Court officials and prosecutors in the Marshall Islands did not respond to repeated requests for information about how Aine was able to leave the country after being charged with human trafficking.
In late April, one of Aine’s co-defendants pleaded guilty to unlawful solicitation and was sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence and probation in return for agreeing to be a witness in the case against Aine and another defendant.
Former Civil Beat reporter Emily Dugdale contributed to this report.
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