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SPRINGDALE -- Any adoption of a Marshallese parent's child would require approval by the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands under a bill state Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Springdale, hopes to introduce this month.

Eldon Alik, consulate general for the Marshall Islands, said passage of the bill would help his government's efforts to curb adoptions that take children out of the country and would protect the republic's citizens living in the U.S. Alik is based in Springdale and said he has conferred with the Marshallese attorney general and the republic's ambassador to the United States about Williams' proposal.

His government supports the bill, Alik said.

Williams' proposed bill is unconstitutional both as drafted and in principle, said adoption attorney Marsha Woodruff with the Woodruff Law Firm in Fayetteville. It singles out the Marshallese, denying them equal protection under the law, she said. Williams said in an earlier interview he has discussed his bill with judges who handle adoption cases and no such objections were raised.

The bill in principle is what the Marshallese government proposed and has sought for years, said Julie Walsh, a specialist in Pacific Island studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has tracked the adoption issue. Walsh said she could not comment on constitutional law issues, but the Marshallese are already singled out by their unusual status with the United States, which affords them the right to travel without visas.

The majority of adoptions approved in Washington County are for Marshallese children, court officials say. While Northwest Arkansas has the largest concentration of Marshallese in the continental United States, they are still a minority. The high rate of Marshallese adoptions in Northwest Arkansas and elsewhere has drawn the attention and concern of judges for years, said 4th Judicial District Circuit Judge Doug Martin.

"Nine out of 10 adoptions I do are for a Marshallese child," Martin said Monday.

The pace has slowed somewhat in recent years, he said, but that is apparently due to more adoptions being done in Arkansas in different jurisdictions.

The large number of Marshallese women giving up their children for adoption first caused widespread concern among the area's legal, medical and advocacy communities in Northwest Arkansas in 2015. They worried some of the women were signing documents in a language they didn't understand and may not know they have no rights to the child once he's adopted.

Community leaders openly questioned whether the women know all their rights, such as the right to withdraw consent for an adoption.

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Others expressed concern about how the expectant mothers are reimbursed for expenses related to their pregnancies.

"I like it," Martin said of Williams' proposal. "We've tried for four or five years to do something about this. I had given up, honestly. I'll take any help we can get."

If there are constitutional issues, the lawmaking process is the place to discuss them, Martin said.

The compact

Bringing any Marshallese parents or parents-to-be to the United States from the islands for the purpose of carrying through an adoption breeches the compact allowing travel without visas, Alik said.

Marshall Islands citizens can travel to the United States under the "Compact of Free Association," a treaty between the two countries. The United States administered the islands for years after World War II and used a portion of those islands for atomic bomb tests. Some of the rights extended to Marshall Islanders, Alik said, were a form of recompense for those tests.

A specific provision about adoptions was added to the compact in 2003, U.S. State Department records show. "A person who is coming to the United States pursuant to an adoption outside the United States, or for the purpose of adoption in the United States, is ineligible for admission under the Compact and the Compact, as amended," it says.

There are concerns even in cases where a Marshall Islander has lived in the United States for years, said both Alik and Melisa Laelan, a Marshallese language interpreter for regional courts and an advocate for Arkansas' islander population. Adoptive mothers are rarely represented by their own attorneys, Alik and Laelan said. The adoptions are most often arranged through attorneys of the prospective parents. The Marshallese government is anxious to see that the rights of its citizens are protected, Alik said.

"They are still Marshallese citizens," however long they have lived in the United States, he said.

Cultural gap

The cultural difference between adoption in the Marshall Islands and in the United States is well known, Alik and Laelan said.

"I was adopted, and I saw my real parents all the time," Alik said. In the islands, adoption is an open system where all parties maintain a close relationship.

As Williams described his understanding of the difference: "It's almost like adopting a whole other family."

In the United States, though, a parent who gives up a child for adoption forfeits her rights as a parent. For instance, there is no right to visitation or any role in the child's raising. The Marshallese government wants to ensure its citizens are fully aware of what they are giving up and suspect that is often not the case. Even an adoptive parent who realizes the difference or who has doubts toward the end of the process may fear the repercussions of backing out of a deal.

Woodruff said another major cultural difference with a direct bearing on the adoption issue does not get as much attention.

"No Marshallese Islander would terminate a pregnancy," she said. Americans who cannot afford another child often end their pregnancies. Marshall Islanders do not, she said.

The Marshallese government on the islands has begun taking a more protective stance, Alik said. On Feb. 1, the island's government stopped a young mother and a mother-to-be from boarding a plane for the United States specifically because they were traveling to carry out an adoption.

The proposal

The draft bill by Williams says: "If a petition for adoption concerns a child whose parent is a citizen of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the court shall not enter a decree of adoption unless written approval of the adoption is issued by the Central Adoption Authority of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and is filed with the court."

There will be no financial windfall for the Marshallese government, Walsh said. First, adoption is so common within the islands that fees are low. The Adoption Authority "is practically broke," she said. Second, the Adoption Authority cannot approve U.S. adoptions and trips on any kind of scale without clearly violating the intent of the adoption provision of the compact.

Williams said Friday the bill will have an emergency clause attached. That means it will take effect immediately if passed and signed by the governor. Getting a nonfinancial measure added to the agenda of the biyearly fiscal session will require a two-thirds vote in the House and again in the Senate, but Williams said he expects to pass that hurdle.

"One of my arguments will be that once this bill is introduced, there will be a rush to complete as many adoptions as possible before it passes," Williams said. "Time is a factor."

The bill is intended to address a specific problem without affecting every adoption in Arkansas, and that is a problem, Woodruff said. First, the proposal is unconstitutionally vague, she said. For instance, it restricts adoptions when the parent is a citizen of the Marshall Islands. What about a second-generation Marshallese who was born here and, hence, has dual citizenship and all the rights of American citizenship?

The greater issues are constitutional due process and equal protection, she said.

"This is a special exception for one minority," she said. "This can never be enforced. The solution here is to enforce the existing law in the compact, something the U.S. and Marshallese governments have never done. I wish the feds would."

One side benefit of the bill would be to cut down on cases of fraud, Williams said. At least three Marshallese women have been convicted of fraud involving adoptions since 2015.

A Marshallese Islander appeared in court in Benton County on Monday morning in a fraud case related to adoption. Bing Domnick, 20, was arrested in September on charges she defrauded prospective adoptive parents. That would be a felony punishable with a prison sentence ranging from five to 20 years. Domnick is accused of accepting $7,430 in support from the adoptive parents between Dec. 9 and March 1. Monday, her trial date was moved to March 12.

In November, Meryann Lomae, 34, was charged in Madison County with defrauding prospective parents of $13,801 in financial assistance, then providing the child to another couple.

Julita Jabuwe, 36, of Springdale was placed on 10 years of state-supervised probation in May after pleading guilty to defrauding a prospective adoptive parent. She admitted taking money from two couples wanting to adopt her child. She was ordered to repay $11,022 to the couple who didn't adopt her child.

NW News on 02/06/2018

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