The mainland couples who had been trying to adopt a newborn knew to expect paperwork and drudgery and endless waiting.
But once they connected with Honolulu attorney Laurie Loomis, who specialized in adoptions involving birth mothers from the Marshall Islands, they suddenly found themselves in the fast lane.
Emily Bernard’s experience was typical. After connecting with Loomis, she and her husband Brad asked to have their profiles presented to two Marshallese mothers who had given birth in Hawaii.
“They called us late one evening,” Emily Bernard recalls. “Twenty-four hours later, we were on a plane to Hawaii.”
Once they landed, a Kaneohe woman who looked after Marshallese newborns for Loomis contacted them and offered to bring the baby boy she’d had for three months to Honolulu.
“There was no, ‘Prove who you are, how do we know you’re the people who are supposed to be getting this child?’ He was just kind of handed over to us,” Bernard said.
No one at the Honolulu airport asked the Bernards for paperwork showing they had legal custody of the baby. But they later ran into delays finalizing the adoption. Though Hawaii had approved the transfer of the baby to the mainland, their home state of Alabama had not, which Loomis had advised them would be OK. And Loomis had not secured the consent of the birth father. In the end, a judge in Arkansas, where the birth mother lived, approved it.
Loomis has been one of the primary participants in the rough-and-tumble Marshallese baby business that has recently garnered national attention with the October arrest of Paul Petersen, an Arizona attorney who ran an operation much like hers.
In “Black Market Babies,” an investigation last year, Civil Beat described the operations of Petersen, Loomis and several others who specialize in adoptions involving mothers from the Marshall Islands.
Loomis’ actions as a Marshallese adoption lawyer have largely remained hidden because adoption and medical records are closed to public scrutiny.
But in the aftermath of the Petersen arrest, Civil Beat talked to those involved in adoptions engineered by Loomis and reviewed records and communications to get a fuller picture of her activities. Most would only speak to Civil Beat if their names were not used, out of fear that their adoptions would come under scrutiny or that they would face legal consequences.
Among the findings:
Loomis declined to discuss her adoption business.
She did, however, provide a written statement:
“While I am ethically prohibited from discussing any of my adoption cases, all of the adoptions that I have worked on over my thirty-five year career have proceeded in strict compliance with all applicable laws,” she wrote. “I have always strived to ensure the voluntariness of the birth parents’ decision to place their child for adoption and the voluntariness of their written consent to the adoption.”
In October, prosecutors in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah brought charges against Petersen, who is also the elected assessor of Maricopa County, Arizona — making national headlines and shining a light on the black market for Marshallese babies.
Petersen, the prosecutors said, illegally arranged for women to fly from the Marshall Islands to place their newborns with American families. And he defrauded the state of Arizona for about $800,000 by signing them up for Medicaid, they said.
According to the allegations, a dozen Marshallese birth mothers were sometimes crammed into a house, four to a bedroom, some without beds. The women had little or no prenatal care, contrary to what Petersen told adoptive parents.
He is alleged to have lied to judges and inflated his costs to adoptive couples. It was a big-money operation. In Arkansas, prosecutors say he wired more than $1 million to his handler to distribute illicit payments to birth mothers. In Utah, over about two years, adoptive parents wired $2.7 million to his bank account.
On the Arkansas federal charges alone, he faces a maximum of 315 years in prison.
But while Petersen faces prison time and public disdain, Loomis is an attorney in good standing who, so far, has faced no public accusations of wrongdoing. The Hawaii Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates allegations against attorneys, said there has been no public record of disciplinary action against Loomis. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Honolulu said it could neither confirm nor deny any investigation into Loomis or Marshallese adoptions in general.
Loomis recently vacated her law office on Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu. Earlier this year, she allowed her membership to lapse in the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys in Indiana, which describes itself as “an organization of nearly 500 highly vetted attorneys dedicated to the competent and ethical practice of adoption and assisted reproduction law.” Before that, she was the only member of the prestigious group based in Hawaii.
Loomis was born and raised in Hawaii, but got her law degree from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She has become known in Honolulu for her work combating invasive species, and in 2015 received an award from the state. She’s a competitive ocean swimmer, as well as a hiker and diver, according to online bios.
In general, Marshallese citizens are free to come to the U.S. without visas under the Compact of Free Association. But two decades ago, in response to widespread exploitation of Marshallese women in adoptions, the treaty was amended to block women intending to place their children in adoptions.
Instead, all international adoptions were supposed to go through a central authority in the Marshall Islands that would assure that women were treated fairly and understood the consequences.
At the heart of the reforms was the contrasting conceptions of adoption in the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, which has a tradition of informal child-sharing with relatives and friends. The bond between biological parents and children generally is not severed permanently by a court, as happens in the U.S.
Despite the secrecy of adoption records, Civil Beat identified at least three cases in which pregnant women flew from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to place their children in adoptions overseen by Loomis.
One woman, who asked that her name not be used because she remains concerned that the process she went through was improper, first placed a child through official channels in the Marshall Islands. The baby ended up with a couple in San Francisco.
When she became pregnant again in 2015, however, she decided that she did not want to go that route. She was worried she would experience excessive bleeding, as she did during her first delivery, and thought the medical care would be better in the U.S.
The woman’s cousin had heard of Laurie Loomis. When she contacted her, the attorney invited her to come to Hawaii, she told Civil Beat through a translator last year.
She was between seven and eight months pregnant when she landed in Honolulu and was greeted at the airport by Merlyna Chinglong, Loomis’s handler. She assumed that Loomis paid her airfare, though she wasn’t sure.
She said that Loomis and Chinglong arranged for her to stay at various hotels in Waikiki, along with several other pregnant Marshallese women. The handlers would bring food and drinks. Mostly, the five women would stay in one room, though sometimes they’d get a second. Chinglong could not be reached for comment.
All of them gave birth at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children.
Afterwards, the woman signed adoption papers at one of the hotels where she’d been staying. It was only then, she said, that she realized in discussions through a translator that the adoption would be closed. She had assumed it would be open because that’s the standard for those done officially through the Marshallese government.
But the woman did not feel like she had the option to back out, since she had flown to Hawaii just for the adoption, accepting plane fare and accommodations, and had no way to pay anyone back.
“I was scared at the moment because I received money from them,” she said through a translator. “And I felt it was only right to sign the papers and get it done with because if they were to tell me I needed to return all the money I wouldn’t be able to, because I didn’t have any money.”
Only one state — Idaho — requires birth mothers who back out of adoptions to reimburse the expenses.
The woman said she expected a lump sum payment of $8,000, because that’s what the other women were getting, but was surprised to get between $6,000 and $7,000. Money had been deducted for her flight and a penalty for an earlier one she had missed.
A year later, another Marshallese woman made the journey to Hawaii. This woman provided Civil Beat a written account of her story, which she presented to a group that advocates for ethical adoptions in Arkansas, but also asked that her name not be used.
This woman said she’d already had two children and was thinking about going back to college in the Marshall Islands when she became pregnant again and decided to put the baby up for adoption.
About seven months into her pregnancy, she said, she got a call from Loomis, who told her she’d been matched with a couple in Kentucky and to pack her bags because she’d be flying to Hawaii.
She said she was told by her handler in the Marshall Islands to tell flight attendants she was five months pregnant instead of seven to avoid questions about whether flying was medically advisable.
After giving birth, the woman said she wanted to return to the Marshall Islands. But Loomis, she said, told her that since she had come here for an adoption she had to remain in the U.S. Her partner and their daughter later flew to Hawaii and the family moved to Arkansas.
This woman’s account is corroborated by the Kentucky woman who adopted her child, who also asked not to be named. This adoptive mother said she knew that the birth mother had come from the Marshall Islands, but didn’t realize that she had been in Hawaii for such a short time — only three weeks.
The adoptive mother thought the birth mother had picked them based on a profile book she and her husband had put together. Only later did she discover that the birth mother had not known anything about her until they met at the Kapiolani hospital room — the match had been made entirely by Loomis.
In its stories last year, Civil Beat documented a third case in which a woman flew to Hawaii for an adoption arranged by Loomis.
In that case, Loomis worked with Gordon Benjamin, an attorney who at one time handled official Marshallese adoptions through a U.S. agency, to place a child born to a woman in Majuro.
The mother, Hemiko Binejal, flew to Hawaii in 2014 with a ticket paid for by Loomis eight days after giving birth, according to documents obtained by Civil Beat.
Loomis had lined up an adoption for the infant, but the Central Adoption Authority in the Marshall Islands was telling the other lawyer, Benjamin, that it would not be legal. And so the adoptive couple backed out. Birth mother Binejal left the infant, Leyann, in Hawaii and went to live with relatives in Arkansas.
The attorneys found another U.S. couple interested in adopting Leyann and Loomis wrote them that the Marshall Islands government had told Benjamin that it could be handled as a domestic U.S. adoption – that is, the Marshallese Central Adoption Authority would not have to be involved.
But a CAA official told Civil Beat last year that it would never have approved a child born in the Marshall Islands being flown to the U.S. for a private adoption. A Hawaii official also raised questions about whether it could be handled that way.
This couple also backed out, citing ethical red flags and ballooning costs. Loomis’ estimate for the adoption had gone up to $53,422, including $20,000 for her legal fees and $6,500 for Chinglong.
“We found out very quickly, this child was being used as a pawn,” the would-be adoptive mother, Missy Swenson, told Civil Beat. “She was being sold by Laurie.”
Swenson said she does not know what happened to baby Leyann.
In 2017, Loomis’ activities started to draw attention in Honolulu. Kapiolani doctors sought advice from Micronesian community groups after noticing an upsurge of Marshallese women giving up their children for adoption, including roughly 20 in the previous six months.
They noticed that Loomis’ handler, Chinglong, brought them for all their prenatal care. But the doctors weren’t sure if their discussions with the mothers were being translated correctly. The doctors were concerned the women, who were in their last trimesters, had received no prior prenatal care.
By that time, Loomis was no longer housing the women in Waikiki hotels. They were staying instead at an apartment in Aiea. The women who came to Kapiolani all listed that address.
The owner of an Aiea building where Chinglong rented an apartment told Civil Beat that the other tenants reported that 10 to 15 people were crowding into the two-bedroom unit.
“They’d say they were just visiting relatives,” he said. “Every month it was a different crew.”
Loomis also arranged for Marshallese women living in Arkansas to fly to Hawaii for adoptions. In these cases, the adoptions themselves would be considered legal under the COFA and Marshallese law, since the women had already been living in the U.S. But they raise other questions.
Arkansas attorney Vaughn Cordes said in a lawsuit deposition in July that he hired Chinglong to find local Marshallese women who were interested in placing their children for adoption.
“She was a crook from day one and I didn’t know it,” Cordes said in the deposition.
Chinglong would connect him with Marshallese birth mothers, he said, then abruptly change course.
“We found out very quickly that she was bringing people to me and then telling them to change attorneys — collect as much money as possible and then change attorneys and work with someone from Hawaii,” Cordes said in the deposition.
That someone, he said, was Loomis.
In one such case, Cordes matched a North Dakota couple, Timothy and Roxane Cartwright, with Angela Emos, a Marshallese woman living in Arkansas.
Roxane Cartwright said she and Emos became fast friends, texting and talking daily.
But things went awry when Emos started asking for more money, according to an arrest warrant affidavit in a later fraud case against Emos.
Emos cut off contact. But then Cartwright noticed a Facebook photograph of her with palm trees in the background. Emos had flown to Hawaii and started working with Loomis, who placed the child with a different couple.
Emos pleaded guilty last year to fraud and was sentenced to 120 days in jail.
Emily Bernard, the Alabama woman who flew to Hawaii on short notice to pick up her child, said that the day after she arrived, Loomis told her that the Marshallese birth mother had originally been working with Cordes, who represented a different adoptive couple. That couple would have to be paid back, Loomis said.
Bernard said she quickly identified the jilted couple on Marshallese adoption forums.
“We were horrified,” Bernard said. “That was information she clearly knew but she didn’t tell us that until we were sitting in her office with him (their infant son) in our hands.”
Bernard later obtained the medical records for the birth mother, and learned that she had flown from Arkansas to Hawaii well into her eighth month of pregnancy — about a week below the recommended limit for flying safely.
In fact, the records show, she went to the hospital with contractions the day after arriving and gave birth less than three weeks later.
The birth mother told hospital officials that she was in Hawaii only to give birth and place the infant in an adoption. She gave a permanent address in Springdale, Arkansas, and listed a hotel in Waikiki as a temporary address.
One record, under the section identifying insurance coverage, states “Med-QUEST pending.” Med-QUEST is Hawaii’s Medicaid program for those with limited income.
Loomis, in fact, mentioned the Medicaid coverage in a later email to Brad Bernard. The lawyer and the Bernards were disputing some of the adoption expenses.
“As I have indicated, Merlyna’s job is to assist and support the birth mother,” Loomis wrote, according to an email provided by the Bernards. “She lived with her here, made sure that she was fed and clothed, initiated medical care for her, arranged for her Medicaid coverage, coordinated and took her to all her doctors appointments, was with her for the birth and her hospital stay, and coordinated her post natal care, and arranged her airport arrival and departure.”
About a year later, the same birth mother flew to Hawaii again for another adoption arranged by Loomis. In this case, as well, a hospital form indicated that she was enrolled in “Medicaid/Quest.” She returned to Arkansas after that delivery as well.
Judy Mohr Peterson, head of Hawaii’s Med-QUEST, said the program is for Hawaii residents who intend to stay here.
When Civil Beat described the birth mother’s situation to Peterson, she responded, “We would look at that as being, at worst, fraudulent.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.