Special Report

Black Market Babies



The first adoption boom caught everyone by surprise.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a string of low-lying coral atolls halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, had no law governing international adoptions in the 1990s.

There were no systems in place for the RMI to track or regulate the number of foreign adoption agencies setting up shop. No legal remedy for the growing drama at the airport, where American families and adoption agents were often seen leaving the country with crying children.

“These children, they just didn’t stop crying,” says Daisy Alik-Momotaro, a senator in the Marshallese parliament. “Nonstop crying.”

By the time the Marshallese government instituted a temporary moratorium on adoptions in 1999, the remote island nation had the highest per-capita adoption rate in the world.

But even that failed to stem the tide. A Hawaii lawyer and her adoption facilitator came up with a plan for circumventing the moratorium by flying pregnant women to Hawaii to give birth here.

Hawaii quickly turned into a hub for what American judges and newspapers widely described as “black market adoptions.” The flow of babies soon spread to other states.

A young professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa helped raise awareness about a disturbing trend: Many of the birth mothers did not understand what they were agreeing to.

In one heartbreaking study, more than 80 percent of birth mothers said they would not have followed through with the adoption if they had known their child would never return.

“Most of the adoptive mothers, you know they thought when the child is 18 the child will come back,” Alik-Momotaro says. “They did not know … it’s giving up their rights of being a parent.”

Alik-Momotaro says she knows of one father who committed suicide after he found out his child had been given up for adoption without his consent.

The number of Marshallese adoptions plummeted in the mid-2000s, after a series of legal reforms in the U.S. and the Marshall Islands.

Or so it seemed.

Civil Beat began looking into the troubling history of Marshallese adoptions in 2017, after connecting with a young Marshallese man whose adoption had, essentially, taken place in the Honolulu airport parking lot.

Season 3 of Offshore, Civil Beat’s narrative journalism podcast, followed his search for his birth family — and his culture.

But as reporting for Offshore progressed, it soon became clear that this wasn’t just a story about unethical adoptions in the past.

Over the last two decades numerous forces — including adoption attorneys, historic demand for adoptable infants, and economic disparities in the Marshall Islands — have kept the adoption pipeline flowing.

Black market adoptions are again on the rise. And confusion still exists about what a closed American adoption means.

“I signed the papers,” Susan Jeto, a Marshallese woman who flew to Arkansas to place a child for adoption in 2013, told Civil Beat. “He has to come back.”

To report this story, Civil Beat traveled to the Marshall Islands, Arkansas, and Utah to interview birth mothers, judges and lawyers. We reviewed numerous court cases and other legal documents from the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. We examined property records, adoption contracts, news clips and interviewed clients.

Reporters John Hill and Emily Dugdale also researched dozens of Facebook profiles to identify Marshallese birth mothers and the American families who adopted their children. With the help of Marshallese interpreters, they interviewed numerous birth mothers and translated the social media postings of others to tell the stories of the adoptions and what happened to their babies.

The result: an unprecedented look at why it’s so hard to control a system ripe for exploitation when birth mothers, adoptive parents and the officials who are supposed to be helping them aren’t doing a thing to stop it.

— Jessica Terrell

Why A Crackdown On This Growing Adoption Pipeline Just Hasn’t Worked Sarah Holm/Civil Beat

Why A Crackdown On This Growing Adoption Pipeline Just Hasn’t Worked

Adoption advocates, hospital workers, even judges are at a loss when it comes to stopping illegal adoptions that are delivering babies from the Marshall Islands to U.S. families.

Marshallese Adoptions Fuel A Lucrative Practice For Some Lawyers April Estrellon/Civil Beat

Marshallese Adoptions Fuel A Lucrative Practice For Some Lawyers

U.S. and Marshall Islands officials say the law clearly bars women from traveling to America to give up babies for adoption. But some attorneys are still taking advantage of lax oversight and willing families.

Related Coverage

One Family’s Marshallese Adoption Odyssey Courtesy of Roxane Cartwright

One Family’s Marshallese Adoption Odyssey

Many adoptive parents document their adoption “journey.” For this couple, the better term would be “ordeal.”

Birth Moms Sometimes Face Adoption Fraud Charges The Baltimore Sun

Birth Moms Sometimes Face Adoption Fraud Charges

But defense attorneys question why lawyers involved in the deals that go sour never face scrutiny.

This Arkansas Nonprofit Is Trying To Facilitate Lawful Marshallese Adoptions Courtesy: Shared Beginnings

This Arkansas Nonprofit Is Trying To Facilitate Lawful Marshallese Adoptions

Still, Marshallese community leaders think it would be better to end all U.S. adoptions from the island nation.

Native American Families Once Faced A Similar Adoption Crisis www.srmt-nsn.gov

Native American Families Once Faced A Similar Adoption Crisis

Experts say Marshallese adoptions would benefit from the rules put in place to stop adoption abuse and cultural loss in Native American tribes.

Desperate Birth Mothers Are Seeking A Better Life Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat

Desperate Birth Mothers Are Seeking A Better Life

Lack of economic opportunity, educational challenges and rising sea level convince many Marshallese that their babies would be better off with other families in the U.S.

Adoptive Parents Attracted By Marshallese Adoptions April Estrellon/Civil Beat

Adoptive Parents Attracted By Marshallese Adoptions

The wait for a baby, cutbacks in other countries and the cost of adoption in the U.S. prompts some prospective parents into sticky situations.

There’s A Distinct Disconnect Between American And Marshallese Adoptions Sarah Holm/Civil Beat

There’s A Distinct Disconnect Between American And Marshallese Adoptions

In the U.S., it’s common for an adopted child to lose contact with birth parents. In the Marshall Islands, adopted children return to the birth family when they are 18 if not sooner.