ADOPTION AND AGENCY: American Adoptions of Marshallese Children

Julianne M. Walsh: Department of Anthropology  University of Hawai`i at Manoa



From 1996-1999 over 500 children were adopted from the Marshall Islands by Americans, placing the RMI well within the top twenty source nation for international adoptions. Without government regulation of this sudden and  rapidly growing phenomenon, the potential for misunderstanding and exploitation grew alarming to national leaders who supported a moratorium on foreign adoptions late in 1999. This paper examines possible causes of foreign adoption in a society where customary adoptions have until recent years been among the highest in the Pacific. Social and economic marginalization in recent years combined with understandings of America and Americans based on historic relations are linked to the growth of a “baby business” whose social, legal, cultural, and emotional implications have yet to be imagined, much less addressed. Key words: Marshall Islands, adoption, US relations, economy, identity, immigration.

Prepared for “Out of Oceania: Diaspora, Community, and Identity” conference sponsored by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai`i at Manoa. October 22, 1999, Honolulu, Hawaii.


Since 1996 the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) has experienced a sudden and sharp increase in the number of foreign adoptions of Marshallese children. While many are bewildered by this phenomenon, this essay will attempt to explain the development of the RMI “baby business,” and explore local understandings of adoption and the historical relationship with America and Americans that inform understandings of American adoptions of Marshallese children. I will also assert that the social and economic marginalization of birth parents in this hierarchical and economically dependent nation is a tremendous factor in the relinquishing of children to American parents. This essay presents the experiences and views of many people involved in and impacted by these adoptions, and considers the potential cultural, economic, emotional, and legal consequences of the adoptions.

The adoptions that I will discuss are not traditional ones, like those significantly addressed in anthropological literature concerning “transactions in kinship” prevalent in Pacific Island societies (Carroll 1970; Brady 1976), though there are a few similarities. These are “open” adoptions of children of all ages by American families. They require ongoing contact between families at least until the child reaches the age of eighteen.

This essay will attempt to address the following questions: With a tradition of family and intraclan adoption centuries old, why are Marshallese families offering their children to Americans? Why are Americans looking to the Marshalls to fulfill their desire for children? What are the consequences for this currently silent migrant community, for their birth parents, their adoptive families, and their American communities?

These questions are particularly salient, and indeed, current. In late September 1999, the Marshall Islands Parliament (Nitijela) passed a moratorium on the adoption of Marshallese children by non-Marshall Islanders.

Before this bill was passed into law, no regulation for adoption of Marshallese children by non-Marshall Islanders existed. All adoptions proceeded without government intervention or monitoring. The only regulation of the adoptions was instituted by the High Court which established its own regulations for the adoptions that required home studies of potential adoptive parents by licensed agencies in the United States. (MIJ 2 January 1998, 11).

Before proceeding I must state my own personal connections to this issue. First, I witnessed the incredible growth of this phenomenon first hand while working at Alele Museum during the course of my dissertation fieldwork in 1997-1998. Second, I have an adoptive Marshallese family with whom I have maintained close ties for nearly ten years, since my first arrival in the islands as a Jesuit International Volunteer. In 1990, I arrived on Majuro to teach high school English for two years as a Jesuit International Volunteer. I was assigned a local sponsor family, and welcomed graciously into their homes, their circle of extended family and friends, and their lives. My relationship with the Marshall Islands and Marshallese people has continued because of this primary relationship with my adopted family. I have since returned to Majuro twice for fieldwork related to my pursuit of graduate degrees in Anthropology with a focus on models of leadership and identity in the Marshall Islands. In 1994, I spent three months on Majuro; in August of 1997 I returned again for a year of fieldwork. At that time I was employed by the RMI Historic Preservation Office as their staff ethnographer, and served simultaneously as Alele Museum’s temporary curator. I also served as an adjunct instructor at the College of the Marshall Islands. In the past ten years, over three of which were spent on Majuro, my life has been irrevocably altered by my relationships with Marshallese people. More than my personal experience of “adoption,” it is a concern about potential misunderstandings of the various cultural meanings of adoption in light of the vulnerability and defenselessness of children that inspires this exploration.


Majuro, the capital atoll of the Marshall Islands, is a strip of coral with an area of less than six square kilometers (3.75 square miles) (RMI Statistical Abstracts 1992, 4). While Majuro boasts the longest road in all of Micronesia (48 kilometers/ 30 miles), most of the 30,000 people who live there reside in a five kilometer (3 mile) stretch called D-U-D (Delap-Uliga-Darrij) , the three main islands that line the easternmost edge of the atoll. WithinD-U-D, approximately 15,000 people reside (RMI Statistical Abstracts 1992, 15).

The national courthouse is located on one of the few green spaces in densely populated DUD, adjacent to the Alele Museum complex. This fact explains my initial connection with adoption. Beginning in October of 1997, I noticed increasing numbers of American couples visiting the museum to purchase the meager cultural resources available for their newly adopted children. Over the course of the following nine months the number rose to three or four couples per week, with occasional groups of three or four couples in one day, particularly during the peak of the adoptions, in the summer of 1998.

Not only was the influx noted in the museum, but the couples were conspicuous at restaurants, at the airport, and elsewhere on the atoll. All eyes and ears were filled with adoption stories — when and where and how many couples had been seen. As an American woman I was frequently asked about American fertility issues, why Americans were so interested in Marshallese children, and how they came to hear about the islands. My interactions with the adoptive parents at the Museum haunted me. I, like my friends in the community, wanted to know why

Marshallese families were relinquishing their children, and I worried over the identities of these tiny infants with so few resources available to learn about their birth families, their heritage, their language, their history. I thought of all the Marshallese mothers I knew and the obvious joy shared by the community in children. Not only, was I worried about the cultural loss of the children, but I stressed over their safety. A lawyer’s guarantee did not make me feel secure. No agency or authority could protect the children from potential harm, enforce the stipulations of the adoption, ensure that birth and adoptive parents remained in contact, track the progress of the child, even be sure the children were not abused or, sold on some rumored “black market” (MIJ, 3 December 1999).

The increase in the number of adoptions was plainly obvious to Majuro residents. The airport was one of the most public places where adoptive parents and Majuro residents came into contact, since Continental’s Air Micronesia was the only flight traveling to and from Hawaii at the time.

Airports in the Pacific are significant sites for the “flow of goods” – the exchange of resources and information upon which many islanders’ lives depend (Hau’ofa 1993, 11). Airports also serve as a source of entertainment, or novelty, as foreign passengers are frequently the object of humorous scrutiny. In this case, Amata Kabua International Airport on Majuro became a site of intensely public emotionally-charged farewells. In a society where emotions are not frequently displayed publicly, the tension at the airport was difficult on the larger community as well as the individuals involved. Some of the adopted children cried uncontrollably at the moment of separation. I noticed adults in the airport wiping tears behind dark glasses, or turning to walk away. At that time it was rare to go the airport and not experience the departure of an adopted child. Marshallese traveling on those flights returned with stories of those experiences, sometimes having helped the adoptive parents by holding and comforting the crying infant or serving as translators for older adopted children. With only three flights a week, new American couples with diaper bags arrived even as others boarded with their “forever child.” (This term is used by adoptive parents on one adoption agency’s email list-serve group to describe an adopted child.)

In one incident I witnessed an American couple escorting a young Marshallese child from the coffee shop beneath Alele up to the Library and Museum. The youngster was bragging to other children his age who played daily in the area, that he was going to Amedika, with these ri-belle ‘foreigners’, who had just bought him a soda and cookie. I later saw the child at the airport calling for his mother as he passed through the airport’s security gate.

One adoptive family whom I met initially while working at Alele later shared the experience of their adopted child’s adjustment with me. The adoptive mother describes the stages of grief and development of the child from being inconsolable to completely submissive moving gradually to playful and affectionate. (Appendix A.)

By January of 1999, the President Imata Kabua’s Cabinet had called for the creation of a Task Force under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to examine the sudden increase in adoptions. When it did, the front page of the nation’s only newspaper broadcast the news: “Booming Baby Business Out of Control” (MIJ, 2 February 1999). Foreign Secretary, Marie Maddison, chaired the Task Force which recommended a moratorium to prohibit adoptions by non-Marshallese until proper regulations might be formulated. The proposed bill would amend the existing Domestic Relations Act (26 MIRC) but could not be acted upon until the second (20th Regular) Parliamentary session of 1999. Anecdotal evidence suggests the bill was rushed through the approval process because government officials happened to witness a particularly distressing airport scene in which a child was dragged, screaming, on board a flight to Honolulu in the final week of the parliamentary session (Email David Strauss). The moratorium, known as the Adoption Residency Act, or Bill 159, passed in the Parliament, (Nitijela) in the final days of the Fall session, and went into effect in late September, only a few weeks before the first draft of  this essay was completed. (RMI Task Force Final Report and Recommendations, September 1999).

The Figures

In late 1998 as the number of adoptions was noticeably increasing, I decided to count the cases over my lunch hour. I began somewhat arbitrarily with the year 1990, and discovered that adoptions were classified in two ways. Traditional or customary adoptions of children (kokajriri) were marked as such with a notation on the case record. Customary adoptions are covered by existing legislation, 26 MIRC, Chapter One, Domestic Relations Act.

Other, what I termed “external,” or “foreign” adoptions were obvious by the lack of notation and also by the surnames of the adopting parents. The Marshall Islands Journal referred to these children as, “Our Saddest Export.”(MIJ, 2 Jan 1998). In examining the cases I found that many of the adoptive parents adopted more than one child, or returned at a later date for another adoption. Sometimes numerous children were adopted from one family by more than one American couple. I also saw records of rumored cases such as that of one family whose four children were adopted by four different American families within the same week.

From 1990-1996 the average number of external adoptions was seven per year. These adoptions were based on some prior link to the islands, through American volunteers, employees on Kwajalein, or others who had worked or spent time in the Marshalls. Sometimes Marshallese would help American friends find children to adopt, or foster for educational opportunities in the US (Personal communication). In 1997 the number of legal foreign adoptions suddenly jumped to sixty-three. No longer were they solely based on personal ties to Marshallese families.

On Majuro, from January to May of 1998 thirty-five external adoptions occurred with an additional thirty children adopted in the following two months. Nearly eighty children were adopted on Majuro in the last five months of the year, bringing the total number of adoptions on Majuro in 1998 to 143 (Figures 1, 2, and 3.) Presumably, adoptions occurring on Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll, and other islands have been included in the total estimate of the Adoption Task Force. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has estimated that 500 children were adopted from the Marshall Islands between January 1996 through January 1999 (personal communication). That figure represents an average of 166 adoptions per year from 1996-1999.

While the Marshall Islands are not included in State Department figures on international adoption due to the unique relationship between the RMI and the United States, comparatively, the numbers are staggering.

Comparing the numbers of children adopted by Americans from the top twenty source nations, the number of adoptions on Majuro alone would place the Marshalls as the fourteenth largest source nation, between the Dominican Republic and Bulgaria, with more adoptions than Haiti, Brazil, Ethiopia, Thailand, Poland and Latvia.

The Foreign Affairs larger estimate places the Marshall Islands nearly within the top ten source nations for 1998.

Considering the fact that the total population of the Marshall Islands is approximately 60,000, in contrast to the tremendous populations of other source nations such as Russia, China, S. Korea, etc., the impact of this phenomenon on the nation is quite incomparable (Figure 4).

A History of Traditional Adoption

Adoption is central to social, political, and economic life in Pacific Island cultures (Brady 1976; Carroll 1970). Adoption is a common and acceptable method of not only of distributing people relative to resources within a family or, more usually, a clan, but also serves to incorporate outsiders into a relationship that allows for future exchange of resources (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989, 75).

Adoption functions practically to address issues of sterility, inheritance, labor, and family size, while accomplishing other ends as well. It allows for economic mobility, the formation of socio-political alliances, community solidarity, and the redistribution of property. With strong systems of exchange and reciprocity already in place, the adoption of children can expand a resource base, or strengthen preexisting bonds. Further, adoption  confers status on birth parents (Howard and Kirkpatrick 1989).

What is also often overlooked is that adoption may also provide status for the adopting parent, who is viewed as generous for sharing his or her wealth with the child of a family member with fewer resources. It is usually the case that children are adopted by family members in a superior position to the birth parents, in age, inheritance, and overall resources (Fischer 1970, 299). Implicit acknowledgement of the difference in status makes it difficult to for birth parents to refuse the requests of a senior lineage member.

In the Marshall Islands, studies of adoption are few. Michael Rynkiewich (1976) examined the numerous forms of adoption and its impact on land tenure. Only one of six named adoption relationships involved the adoption of children, kokajriri (1976). Like adoption patterns in other Pacific island societies, children are generally adopted by clan members (clan membership is determined by the mother in the matrilineal Marshalls), frequently by maternal grandparents, or a parent’s elder sibling. The adoptions are usually a response to the adoptive parent’s need for labor, or care, or to solidify family relationships, to prevent cross cousin marriage, or to ensure an inheritance.

Occasionally, adoptions occur for the benefit of the birth parents who may have many children already, or may be considered too young to adequately provide for the child (Rynkiewich 1976). What is most revealing about adoptions in the Marshall Islands is their prevalence. As in other areas of Micronesia, levels of adoption are exceptionally high. According to research conducted in the 1970s that contrasted Polynesian and Micronesian rates of adoption, Micronesian communities were among those with the highest rates with nearly 70 percent of households having one or more adopted or foster children (Smith 1976, 250).

It is important to note that Marshallese traditional adoptions do not include total denial of parental rights.

Birth parents continue to have a relationship with their child, and their biological connection is known. No stigma is attached to the child, and the child is considered shared among the parents. Unlike American adoption customary adoptions in the Marshalls involve additional sets of parents, rather than the exchange of parents. Further, adoptions  may, in rare cases, be reversed, in cases of abuse or neglect, and often when a child is older he or she may feel free to return to the birth parents if they are willing.

The potential for misunderstanding between Americans and Marshallese regarding adoptions is high. The act of adoption among Marshallese creates a fictive relationship of siblings between birth and adoptive parents. It allows for future assistance, reciprocal exchanges, and a lifetime of mutual support all based on the shared  connection to the child. American understandings of adoption are more legalistic. While there is generally good will on both sides, expectations of the birth family of future support may not be understood by adoptive families who feel they have adequately fulfilled their share of the deal by remaining in contact and sending packages. The children who evidently maintain their land rights back in the islands, will not have the cultural knowledge or linguistics ability to contribute to the extended family or community. The adoption process may not be adequately represented by local or America facilitators unfamiliar with the cross-cultural expectations of adoptions.

In the past, grandparents were frequent adopters of their children’s children, particularly their first born. Children raised by grandparents are considered lucky, as the grandparents have useful skills, knowledge, and resources to share. Currently, children are being raised by grandparents due to the high teenage pregnancy rate in the country. From 1992-1996, 17-21 percent of all registered births were to mothers who ranged in age from fifteen to nineteen. Thirty-five to thirty-seven percent of registered births were to twenty to twenty-four year old mothers  (RMI Vital and Health Statistics Abstracts 1997, 13c). Significant is the health of the children born to young  mothers. With 15 percent of all births weighing in at “low” birth weights of less than 680 grams (5 pounds, 8 ounces), 27 percent of these are children of teenage mothers, 44 percent are children of women age twenty to twenty-four (RMI Vital and Health Statistics 1997, 13i). The national birth rate while still among the highest in the world, has decreased from a peak of 4.2 percent in 1988 to approximately 3.4 percent per year (RMI Statistical

Abstract 1992; Pacific Islands Populations Data Sheet 1999). Even so, children under the age of fifteen make up the largest percentage of the population (RMI Vital and Health Statistics 1997, 7l). In contemporary times, grandparents often still have very young children of their own to care for in addition to their teenager’s child. With 45 percent of the RMI population (those between the ages of fifteen and fifty-nine) supporting the remaining 55 percent of the population (SPESS 1998, 45), those of working age have a difficult time balancing family responsibilities and economic survival. This has impacted the transmission of cultural knowledge and skills as well, as grandparents are not the babysitters of the past, they are working adults.

The most significant national statistic relates to migration to the urban centers of Majuro and Ebeye where nearly 65 percent of the entire Marshallese population ( about 39,000 people) share their lives on less than two square kilometers (.65 square miles) of coral. (Pacific Islands Populations Data Sheet 1999).

The combined factors of teen pregnancy, high birthrates, and densely populated and extremely small land areas are challenging to any society. Adequately nourishing a child is especially difficult on a coral atoll with meager land resources where 92 percent of the local diet is imported and expensive (Kiste 1993, X ). Marshallese children suffer extremely high rates of malnutrition. In one study of Majuro schoolchildren over 50 percent were noted as undernourished (MIJ). Rates are especially high for children of young mothers.

The age specific death rate for 1996 was nearly seventeen per 1,000 children less than one year of age. The next highest rate was twenty-two per 1,000 for people ages fifty to fifty-four, with the death rate increasing with each additional age increment. The average death rate for people between the ages of one and fifty was only slightly over 2 per 1,000 (RMI Vital and Health Statistics 1998, 18d). In 1996 malnutrition was the referral cause stated for over 300 social work cases, over three hundred times other stated referral reasons such as child neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc.

While these combined factors are undeniably difficult, in regional standards the people of the Marshalls are considered well-off. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the Marshall Islands in 1996 was approximately $70 million (Bank of Hawaii Pacific Economic Report April 1998, 3). The per capita GDP was about $1,200 — higher than that of Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Kiribati (SPESS 1998, 13). Compared to many of the other source nations for international adoptions, the Marshall Islands is rich.

Many Americans arriving on the island to adopt describe their horror at housing conditions that lack  running water and electricity, plumbing, toilet facilities. These conditions alone define the Marshallese lifestyle as inadequate to meet the needs of children, justifying adoption and “rescuing”. Few of the adoptive parents have had experience or knowledge of the Pacific, much less the Marshall Islands, a place they discovered through adoption agencies’ sites on the world wide web. The well-intentioned parents’ correspondence through their list-serve reinforces the notion that the Marshall Islands is a backwater of poverty and ignorance. Stories are shared concerning the “poverty” visiting parents experiences – such as how locals eat ramen noodles for breakfast. (Which is actually more a sign of wealth than poverty.) Adoptive families share suggestions for helpful care packages to the islands and birth families: many send five pound bags of rice, school supplies, jewelry, hair ornaments, coffee makers, etc. Cultural misunderstandings occur frequently as Marshallese don’t follow American social etiquette concerning thank-you notes upon receipt of the packages, nor do the packages’ contents always reach their intended recipients when a relative claims the mail at the Post Office. One agency on Majuro has established a carrier service of sorts, charging fees to hand deliver packages to birth families. (These fees are contentious, for taxi fare in DUD is fifty cents; “delivery service” in DUD is five dollars.) As more and more packages arrive from adoptive families to birth families, expectations are raised and stories are spread about the relationships between birth and adoptive families. Families are compared and judged by their “remittances” back to the islands.

So, why are American so interested in Marshallese children and how did word spread of their availability?

Malnourishment and the growth of adoption agencies

When Lina Morris, a Marshallese woman who began the first adoption agency in the islands, was first solicited by an American couple in Texas (where she resides) looking for a beautiful child like her own granddaughter, she called her sister on Majuro and asked where one might be found. Her sister suggested going to the hospital, to the mothers of the malnourished babies. (MIJ, 30 January 1998, 1,12) Nurses assisted her in making inquiries about the possibility of adoption and found willing parents. Thus the malnourished children were the first targets of foreign adoptions.

As early as July of 1997 the Secretary of the Ministry of Health and Environment requested a briefing with the RMI attorney general concerning adoptions. The Secretary noted the numbers of children had recently been  “taken directly from the Majuro hospital and transported to Hawai`i.” It was unclear whether this was happening with or without government knowledge or approval (personal communication). The Office of the Attorney General replied in September of 1997 noting, “There are no procedures for adoption other than those contained in the Domestic Relations Act” (9/2/97) In May of 1998 the RMI Attorney General submitted a memorandum to the Minister of Justice regarding recent questionable adoptions and a request for further inquiry and regulation of the increasing foreign adoptions (19 May, 1998). Later, it recommended making the solicitation of mothers and children a crime. By then, though, the word had spread of malnourished and needy children available for adoption. Some American lawyers involved informally in the adoptions for years, were able to use this opportunity to promote the special legal status of Marshallese children to the agencies being formed in the United States. One significant connection exists between Lina Morris and Dennis Reeder. Lina Morris is Dennis’s wife’s sister. Dennis oversaw the adoption of the children being adopted through his wife’s sister’s agency, Pacific Children’s Adoption Agency.

Since government legislation and regulation were lacking, the High Court established its own regulations for the adoptions (MIJ 2 January 1998, 11).

As word spread, the number of adopting couples on the weekly flights increased.

Adoption Agencies

American interest in Marshallese children is related to four important facts.

First, the Marshalls’ unique status of Free Association with the United States allows an international adoption without the hassle of obtaining a visa through Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). Marshallese citizens are free to enter and leave the United States without visas. Second, the RMI doesn’t regulate the adoptions or require minimum stays. It is possible to arrive, adopt a child in the national court system, and depart in three to five days. Third, the lack of government regulation in the Marshalls leaves the adoptive family requirements completely up to the various adoption agencies. The Marshall Islands has not established national limits on adoptive parent ages, the length of time married, or the number of children already in the family. Single women are potential adoptive parents, as well. Fourth, in the grand scheme of international adoptions Marshallese children are considered a bargain. Shorter stays and less paperwork translates into lower expenses for adopting families. The overall price for adopting a Marshallese child is 1/2 to 1/3 less than adoptions of children from other major source nations such as Russia and China.

While preparing for this paper, I learned of the following four agencies by searching simply for “Marshall Islands and Adoption.” I found the fifth advertising the benefits of adoption in the Marshall Islands Journal. They are: Wasatch International Adoption Agency, Children’s House International, Pacific Joy, Adoption Pros, and Pacific Children Adoption Agency. The RMI Task Force report lists three of the five that I discovered, plus an additional two agencies, Adoption Associates, Inc. and Bridge of Hope. Full knowledge of the extent of the adoptions and people involved is limited. To date I have learned of 12 agencies that have facilitated RMI adoptions in the past (see Appendix C).

I briefly introduce some of the agencies through information gained from their web sites.

WASATCH INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION is a licensed non-profit organization based in Utah. The website notes that birth parents request Wasatch assistance “because they see adoption as a way of providing a future and opportunities for their children.” (Wasatch 19 October 1999 The Marshall Islands Adoption). They explicitly state that they do not solicit children — children are available when the agency is contacted. Open adoptions are explained and other local humanitarian aid programs are described. This agency also has ties to the local community and has contributed scholarships to high school students, medical supplies for the hospital, chairs to the main Protestant church, and sent dentists and ENT specialists.

They advertise children between the ages of three months and seven years with sibling groups are occasionally available. A one week stay on Majuro is required and their costs are $8,900 plus airfare, document fees, and hotel expenses. This agency is the largest of the agencies working in the Marshalls. They also work with children from Bulgaria, China, Moldova, Russia, and Vietnam. (Wasatch site, 10/19/99).

PACIFIC JOY explains that RMI adoptions as less complicated than other international adoptions, with short placement times (often less than a month) and they offer a discounted price for children three or older ($8,000 vs. $12,000). This agency requires a $250 family food package as part of the adoption agreement and their total projected expenses in October were $19,470. In February the projected total is $25,900, not taking into account the $5,000 adoption tax credit. Since 1997, this agency has completed twenty-three adoptions, four of which occurred after the passage of the moratorium, according to the final placement dates of adopted children links at their web site (Pacific Joy 2/28/2000). This is a significant advertisement of what had previously only been rumored – that since the moratorium, even prior, birth mothers were being flown to Honolulu to deliver their babies, where upon adopting couples would meet and take the child home with them.

The stated fees for adoption have risen drastically and changed in their description from October 1999 to February of 2000. Previously round trip airfare to Majuro, two Honolulu stopovers, car rental, hotel fees and meals for Majuro, and a $500 local court fee were listed as expenses. Currently, legal fees ($4000) and a two week stay in Honolulu (also $4000) are listed.

The high costs of this agency compared to the others, is explained by the expense of the remote location of the islands. The web site claims that “even with these costs, the Marshall Islands are one half to one third less expensive than popular adoption locations such as China, Central and South America and Russia.” (Pacific Joy2/28/2000).

It is important to note here that birth families, do not receive money in exchange for relinquishing their child. In most cases, parents receive gifts, much like those described above as a “family food package”. The high prices for foreign fees go to facilitators on the island who help identify potential adoptee, and serve as liaisons and translators for adoptive parents.

ADOPTION PRO is a non-profit agency based in Michigan that promotes Marshallese adoptions by stating that there are no visa requirements, no restrictions on the number of children already in a family, single mothers are eligible, and the entire process takes from six to twelve months. This agency stresses the relatively inexpensive cost of Marshallese children — at 1/2 to 1/3 less than China, Central and South America, Russia, and many foreign nations that require thirty day minimum stays. The stay on Majuro is listed as five days.

CHILDREN’S HOUSE INTERNATIONAL was established in Utah in 1975. Besides RMI adoptions, this agency works with children from India, Russia, China, Bolivia, Guatemala. Selling points include the meeting of the child’s birth mother, and the lack of immigration clearance. On the FAQ sheet this agency points out that more boys than girls are available and there are more toddlers and older children available than infants. (This relates to the matrilineal system of inheritance in the Marshall Islands.) The length is stay is three to five days, but a minimum of one year of communication is required between birth and adoptive parents.

This agency points out that nearly all birth parents request that the adoptive family be Christians. Their costs are listed as $9,000 plus airfare, accommodations, food, and passport fees. Communication must be maintained for a minimum of one year through the agency with the both parent(s). The site explains that the reason the children are offered for adoption is that “basic physical needs (food water, and clothing) cannot be met. Many of them are being raised by a grandparent along with other cousins and siblings.” (10/19/99) They point out that the extended family approves the adoption and that adoptive parents must be aware that occasionally a referral is denied or changed at the last minute.

On their web page, is a note in red ink “no longer conducting adoption on island.” This translates into many of these agencies flying the mothers and children to Hawaii to pursue the process.

Adoption Trends

While I do not claim any relationship between the Marshallese adoptions occurring in Hawaii and recent increases in state records, it is important to note that adoptions are on the rise not only in the Marshalls but in other nations. Recent attention has been paid to the increase of adoption of foster children and others in America. In Hawaii the number increased from approximately eighty-five in 1996 to 297 in 1998. Hawaii achieved the highest rate of growth (249 percent since 1996). For this accomplishment, the state received a $20 million bonus from the federal government. Nationally, adoption rose 22 percent between 1996 and 1998, perhaps in response to the incentive programs instituted by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. (The Honolulu Advertiser, 10 October, 1999; The Honolulu Advertiser, 24 September 1999).

Marshallese Understandings

As many of these web sites point out, the Compact is a convenient incentive for American families.

Children are available with less bureaucratic red tape, time, and money, than most international adoptions. The question that is more difficult to answer concerns Marshallese motivation for offering their children for adoption.

Agencies explain that children’s needs are not being met, that parents want a better life for their children. I’d like to point out that other Micronesian nations that have Compacts of Free Association with the United States and are feeling the decline in Compact funds, are not experiencing the development of an adoption industry.

Why has this phenomenon developed in the Marshalls and not in the Federated States of Micronesia or the Republic of Palau?

My explanation for the adoption explosion involves two main points. First, the historical relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States informs Marshallese views of Americans and life in America.

Views of America and Americans as providers, as metaphorical parents, contribute to positive judgments of Americans as potential adoptive parents. Economic dependency on America surely magnifies this. Second, that economic decline as Compact funds decrease has disproportionately affected the lower classes who in this strictly hierarchical society have few options and extremely limited access to resources. This distress contributes to the breakdown of the extended family and a widening of the gap between classes that impacts the option for traditional adoption .

Historical hierarchies: US and RMI relations

First I’ll explain how the history of US/RMI relations may inform Marshallese understandings of Americans. Given the indigenous models of leadership related to the traditional hierarchy, the US is understood in light of that familiar pattern. Patterns of local leadership informed understandings of US leadership during the Trust Territory administration of the islands. US actions during that time reinforced these understandings and perpetuated a relationship that remains understood as familial, authoritative, protective, even parental.

Marshallese society has traditionally consisted of two classes of people: the royalty, or Iroij, and the commoners, or kajur. While the kajur are the strength (literally) of an Iroij, and his source of wealth, his prestige also comes from the generous redistribution of that wealth. A chief is recognized as a provider — constant source of wealth and therefore, possible assistance. Further, a good chief not only provides, but also guides.

The United States Navy’s role in the Marshall Islands at the close of World War II, fits this local model of chiefly behavior at a critical moment (Carucci 1989) . After suffering under Japanese military rule, Marshallese first experiences with Americans were credible in familiar cultural terms. The US, it can be argued, came into the islands much like foreign conquering chiefs . Rescuing the islanders from starvation and, in places, extermination, older Marshallese refer to the first American soldiers as Lomoren, or Saviors. Those who were children at the time remember the soldiers handing out goods to their families — clothes, ship biscuits, cigarettes, and candy for the children. The goods were in endless supply and distributed by soldiers who rode amphibious tanks, and such machines as had never before been seen or imagined. The impact of this impression of American force, endless wealth , and generosity is still felt to this day.

The subsequent administration of the islands, particularly since the drastic funding increases begun in the late 1960s, largely strengthened notions of endless US wealth and American generosity. Despite a nuclear testing program in the 1950s and the continued use of Kwajalein lagoon as target practice for US missiles, the majority of Marshallese citizens today hold positive valuations of the United States.

Many Marshallese use metaphors of kinship and cultural authority to describe the relationship between the United States and the Marshall Islands. Similar to adoption, metaphors point to the incorporation of the US into Marshallese social life, by creating a relationship of kinship. Over the course of my fieldwork I asked people to evaluate the Compact of Free Association and the US/RMI relationship. Most evaluations of the Compact were critiques of local and national leaders who took advantage of their positions. Criticism of the United States was based on metaphors of poor parenting, for not guiding or carefully observing these leaders or the nation and now demanding full accountability for things some Marshallese people feel they were not equipped or trained to handle.

Metaphors of parenthood and chief/commoner relations were common.

“I blame the local leadership because under the Compact it says, this is you, ‘You take care of your internal affairs, we’ll take care of your military. Here’s your money. Use it wisely as it’s spelled out in the Compact while we watch you. We’ll take care and if someone comes to rob you we’ll come in.’ It’s like a baby, you tell a baby, a little kid, not a baby, someone who can think., you say, ‘Ok, here’s your dollar, don’t buy anything sweet, go buy a pencil or something.’ Instead, they run to the store and get an ice cream and enjoyit while they have it.”

“We’re independent now but still we can ask help from States. We’re independent — not that we can be alone and stand with our own feet, cause we’re still crawling. Yeah, we’re still crawling and we’re now learning how to one step, two step, but once we fall we’ll grab to the United States.”

“ I don’t blame the US. They helped us really good. [Acting out:] ‘We help you, cause, you know, we’re like your Iroij who knows what is bad or good.’ US is the Iroij, and [acting again:] ‘I give you this.’ It’s like your father, it’s like parents, eh? ‘I’m your father and you take $1 bill and use it wisely, ‘cause if you don’t, I’ll think about it. Next time when you come to ask for money from me, I’ll think about whether I give you $1, or 75 cents, or 50 cents, so if you use the money right, then if you ask for help again, I’m still gonna give you as much. It’s like US giving us but [saying], ‘you use it correctly and I’m not going topunish you.’”

“It’s like we were asking the US if they could adopt us and like [they] have a baby and saying, ‘ok, here’s your milk, here’s your bottle, now you take care of it.’ And then not following up with it. “Is it getting spoiled? Come and I’ll correct you with that.’ They should have [checked] every quarter. “Quarter one, ok what is your balance?’ Like it was a trick, eh? The US knows we’re like a hermit crab coming out of a shell, don’t know what to do, see the money and go crazy about it. Like we were a baby and under the UN. Once a baby and started crawling and now coming. Don’t wait [for us] to fall off a cliff, [to] say,‘That’s the wrong way.’ We didn’t know. Like you play a trick on us. We use it and now when come to the end, ‘See, you didn’t listen. You see your mistake.’” (Marshallese Evaluations of the Compact of Free Association, field notes Majuro 1998).

This familial rhetoric is not only coming from the Marshallese. In President Ronald Reagan’s speech to the Trust Territory citizens in 1986, a similar discourse is found:

“Greetings on this historic occasion to our friends in Micronesia. For many years a very special relationship has existed between the United States and the people of the Trust Territory. Under the Trusteeship we’ve come to know and respect you as members of our American family, and now, as happens in all family, members grow up and leave home. I want you to know that we wish you all the best as you assume full responsibility for your domestic affairs and foreign relations.

As you chart your own course for economic development and as you take up your new status in the world as a sovereign nation, we look forward to continuing our close relationship with you in your new status. But you’ll always be family to us.

Over the years, perhaps the most lasting and valuable things we’ve built together are not the roads, the airports, the schools and hospitals, but rather an understanding of the meaning of democracy and freedom and the dignity of self-determination. You’ve built a strong foundation for your future, together in Free Association we can and will build a better life for all. Thank you and congratulations.” (President Ronald Reagan’s Address to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands 1986) (Author-selected text in bold.) Hierarchical relationships are defined in terms of power and dependency. The prevalence and strength of these patterns of relationships within the Marshalls (between parents and children, elder and younger siblings, chiefs and commoners) inform understandings of international relations between the US and the RMI as well as contacts between many Americans and Marshallese individuals. Americans hold positions of high status within the Marshallese hierarchy. This is due to the long-standing perception of America as a powerful and benevolent provider, and the source of knowledge, technology, missionaries, and other valued resources in local lives. After more than half a century of an American presence as teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries, Kwajalein Atoll employees, soldiers, lawyers, health care providers, etc., these views have been steadily reinforced.

Connection to Adoptions

This history has contributed to the high valuation of Americans as potential parents, able to provide well for Marshallese children. In fact many of the birth families note that the reason they offer their child for adoptions is to “receive blessings, knowledge, and health” (see Appendix B). This superior position of the adopting family corresponds to traditional patterns of adoption where children are solicited by senior family members with need and the justification that the child will be better provided for.

In studies of adoption in Eastern Oceania, (1970), Jack Fischer noted that children in Pohnpei are adopted from the homes of younger siblings, or those with few economic resources into the families of elder siblings slated for a greater inheritance, or senior family members able to provide children with greater resources. (Fischer 1970, 299) These senior relatives who desire children either for reasons of childlessness or for care in old age, hold a position of authority that commands deference. While there is no culturally approved method to force a parent to give up a child, it is very difficult to deny a request by a senior family member.

Similar to adoptions in the past solicitation of children by local agency representatives who are usually older women, has been documented by the Ministry of Health and Environment (mentioned previously).The solicitation of the relatives of potential children has also been publicized. The adoption agency operated by a Marshallese woman solicits children through an advertisement in the Marshall Islands Journal. Pressure from senior women representing American adoption agencies cannot easily be dismissed. As emphasized previously, requests from those in positions of authority are especially difficult to resist. The Task force on Adoptions notes that families have been repeatedly harassed by agency facilitators. The report states, that “given the strong cultural obligation many Marshallese feel to say ‘yes’ when approached about any matter, the aggressive actions of certain agents and/or agencies is a matter of grave concern” (5).

Economic Decline and Marshallese Agency

Yet as the adoptions increased and awareness of the US demand for children spread, Marshallese families also began to solicit Americans to adopt their children. Through my correspondence with Americans who have adopted Marshallese children, I have learned of many American families being asked to adopt other and more children after their initial adoption. Frequently, the child the adoptive parents are prepared to adopt happens to change at the last moment. Web sites warn potential adopting parents of this common occurrence. This to me is a sign that the extended families of the adopted children are extensively involved in the adoptions. Corporate decisions are made as to which child in the family is better served to go, or which should accompany a younger child being adopted. It is this switch in babies and children that is evidence of family agency.

One family had the experience of arriving on Majuro to adopt a seventeen month-old young boy. While there another family asked that they adopt their twenty-nine month-old daughter who was extremely ill. Later, the father of the adopted son asked if they would adopt his oldest son. They agreed. When a new child was born to this same family, the American couple were also requested to adopt this new child.

I consider this type of soliciting an act of agency by the socially and economically marginalized. It is a deliberate strategy to serve the needs of the larger family, the child, and to establish future reciprocal relations with generous and wealthy Americans, when local family members are either unwilling or unable to be relied upon.

Establishing familial ties to Americans through adoption of children in traditional logic is not only “good“ for the children, but also may be beneficial for the rest of the family, particularly given the contemporary economic trials faced by average Marshallese families. Connecting these two non-blood related groups creates a common heir, and a shared interest among group members. (Howard 1989, 87). The needs of the larger group are placed before individual needs, and added to that is a more diffuse model of parenthood, in which child-rearing is the responsibility of the community (Howard 1989, 77).

As the US payments to the Marshalls decline in this last five year segment of the Compact, socially and economically marginalized Marshallese, with limited skills and access to goods, have a near impossible time feeding  their families. Even more so, at the time the adoptions were at their peak the nations was suffering an extreme drought caused by El Nino, that made it difficult to even find potable water. Simultaneously, the Asian Development Bank enforced a proposed reduction in force, designed to eliminate 1/3 of all government jobs . Since 2/3rd of all employed people work for the government, the impact of these cuts was tremendous (Connell 1991). The private sector, which is primarily a service economy built upon expendable government wages, could not compensate.

The impact of decreasing Compact funding, combined with Asian Development Bank proposals, and an influx of Chinese and Taiwanese nationals vying for pieces of a shrinking pie all contributed to the decrease in economic opportunities. The sharp increase in adoptions in late 1997 and most of 1998 point to the inability of many Marshallese families to provide for themselves, for their government to assist them, and their heartrending resourcefulness in surviving.

Social change: Joij eo; Mij eo (generosity bring death)

Economic concerns also impacted the ties that hold families together. One might suppose that families in crisis will come together, pool their resources, and make do. But in conditions that are already nearly impossible, and decades of wage earning, and a government that only supports construction projects on urban centers, families have learned to look after themselves. Families with private businesses or stable government employees, accosted at every turn by relatives, customers, and friends seeking a loan or credit, struggled to balance their generosity with the viability of their businesses.

Colleagues at Alele commented about the jabon kennan proverb cards we sold. One reads: Joij eo Mour eo; Lej eo, Mij eo. Translated the concept is, “Generosity bring life; hate brings death.” One quipped that today the card should read “generosity brings death.” In a society of mutual dependence and limited resources, generosity is more than a nice trait. It’s a necessity as your own generosity will be repaid in your time of need. The alteration in this expression shows a quiet understanding exchange is no longer reciprocal and folks must look after themselves. It is this breakdown in extended family relations, in the ability to share and provide for one another, that is made manifest in the adoption of Marshallese children by Americans.

In support of my position of the generous valuations of Americans and the role of economic decline I cite the following quotation from the founder of the Pacific Children Adoption Agency. In an interview in the Marshall Islands Journal, Lina Morris states, “This is a solution to the economic problems, but we need to make rules to govern then adoptions.” While she is one of the people most active and involved in the adoptions she is aware of the potential for problems, but she see adoption as an economic solution. If you can’t feed your children, give them away. She makes no case against government spending priorities, or policies. Instead, she encourages people to consider adoption as a solution. Further, she adds: “Just because they are Americans isn’t enough… if someone wants to adopt check them out before going through with it. One bad adoption would be tragic.” She calls attention to the local understanding that an American would make a good parent, by calling that into question – just because they are American isn’t enough.” She is obviously concerned with the public image of adoption. In the same interview she noted a change in local perceptions. Lina noticed that when the adoptions first began the community reaction was positive. She said, “It used to be people would say, ‘She’s so lucky!’ about a mother having her baby adopted. Now they say, ‘Will you see your baby again?’ Some are embarrassed because they fear their family members will say they don’t love their kids, so they ask me to do the adoptions quietly. . . but I have to talk to the families. They must know what is going on” (MIJ, 30 January 1998, 12).

There are cases of tragic adoption stories like those to which she refers, particularly a case in Florida where a person representing an adoption agency took a baby that was later sold for $17,000. The mother wanted the baby back and the father had never approved of the adoption. A family member supposedly received money to encourage the mother to sign papers (MIJ, 15 May 1998). RMI High Court Judge H. Dee Johnson termed this incident a “black market” adoption that violated the fundamental rights of several people, the criminal laws of the RMI, the dictates of the Compact of Free Association, and the immigration laws of the United States (MIJ, 3 December 1999)

The current moratorium is an act of vigilance in protecting the children. Adoption Task Force chair, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marie Maddison states, “We don’t want to be in a situation ten years from now where kids are saying they were abused or complain that they had no say in being adopted into a foreign culture” (MIJ, 5 February 1999, 11).


The implications of these adoptions are tremendous. Without government regulation children’s rights are surely jeopardized. In January 2000 a lawyer and professor at BYU, Utah, offered her services to the RMI government to assist in drafting adoption legislation (personal communication). This is a beginning. There also has to be a way to track the adoptions occurring in Honolulu. The Task Force reports that “the potential for misunderstanding at best and outright exploitation of Marshallese mothers at worst is extremely high in these cases” (5). As a signatory to the United Nations declaration on Social and Legal Principles Relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, the RMI has established a Convention on the Rights of the RMI Child under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Task Force has recommended a special division within Foreign Affairs be established with the responsibility for coordinating and overseeing all adoption related activities including:

reviewing and verifying case studies of potential adoptive families, coordinating counseling services and conducting home studies of Marshallese families involved in an international adoption, making recommendations to the Court based on their findings in each case, compiling a list of adoption agencies complete with an ongoing review of their activities, providing information regarding adoption in the RMI, ensuring that Marshallese families have proper representation throughout the adoption process, assisting in monitoring the adopted children, establishing and maintaining guidelines for international adoptions (6).

Additionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade must communicate its concerns with US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). INS has proposed a visa requirement for Marshallese children adopted by American parents which calls into question the Compact commitments. A RMI suggestion for a meeting of representatives from the RMI and US State Department, INS, and Department of Health and Human Services be convened to address the matter in a coordinated bilateral approach has received no response.

Further recommendations by the RMI attorney General’s office include alteration of the Domestic Relations Act to include an offense provision to make soliciting, harassing, bribing, and threatening natural parents illegal, as well as obtaining consent by fraud and deceit, and failure to carry out obligations imposed upon agencies and individuals under the additional amendments to the adoption legislation (Recommended Additions to Adoption Laws for the Task Force, September 1999).

Other legal concerns include the land rights of the adopted children. While lawyers assert that the adoptions do not strip children of their land rights John Silk, current Minister of XXXXX states that “even if they are adopted and go to live in the US, they still retain their land rights” (MIJ, 2 January 1999, 11).

Identity issues are particularly salient in cross cultural adoptions. Children adopted from Vietnam in the 1970s and raised by Australian parents have recently shared their experiences of inter-racial and inter-ethnic adoption (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1999, 13). Many point to the conflicting emotions of gratitude for “being rescued”, and anger at being taken away. They expressed resentment at feeling obligated to be grateful. They stressed that providing an environment of respect and openness about their culture and heritance is crucial to a healthy sense of identity, particularly growing up among in dominantly white communities where their ethnicity was cause for differentiation. Always having to explain oneself was a major difficulty for the adoptees, as was their embarrassment at being different. Some explained that they never developed any sense of cultural pride, and many grieved over their loss of cultural identity – “When part of your identity is ignored, you’re building your life on a black hole” (SMH, 17 September 1999, 13).

Australian aboriginal children forced to assimilate into white Australian families have been termed a “Lost Generation.” Similarly, Rotuman educator, Elizabeth Inia, refers to migrant communities as “missing generations” who leave a gap in communities on the islands and who themselves feel lack the full understanding of their island community (EWC lecture September 1999). Children adopted from the Marshall Islands in recent years comprise another generation of loss.

Like other migrant communities, adopted children and their families continue to maintain contact and share goods, information, and assistance. We have yet to see how these relationships will be maintained as children grow older, and as understandings and misunderstandings play out. Cultural concepts of familial affiliation and boundaries will certainly be challenged in these cases. Where Marshallese, as other Pacific islanders, see adoption as an expansion of jural rights, as a means of creating relations of kinship to incorporate others, and garner support and community, American adoptive parents are relatively unfamiliar with the cultural concept of shared rights, and “open adoptions.” One of the most frequently asked questions of Marshallese parents prior to the adoptions is if the child can return. In customary adoptions children who are not well-cared for may be reclaimed, and they grow up knowing their birth parents, often visiting with them and their siblings. The comment that perhaps islanders “don’t recognize the possibility of supplanting a relationship founded on natural parenthood” (Carroll 1970, 14) is consistent with my interviews with close relatives of birth parents who insist that the children will eventually return to the island. It is presumed that the children will be well-educated, a great asset to their family, and able and willing to look after and provide for their natural parents. Inevitable cross-cultural misunderstandings may have agonizing results. Certainly Task Force recommendations that both birth and adoptive parents receive counseling would significantly improve the current situation.

Cross-cultural adoptions, such as those examined, speak to the cultural concepts of family affiliation and boundaries, to issues of class, to historical colonial relationships and contemporary understandings, and they may be interpreted by some as successful responses to limited resources by economically marginalized individuals. Further, they have a tremendous impact on Marshallese concepts of identity, history, and homeland.

This paper has attempted to represent a variety of experiences of Marshallese adoption, but obviously, the most significant voices are silent. We will have to wait to hear the voices of the children.


Special thanks go to many very helpful people on Majuro at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Attorney General’s Office, Alele National Library, Museum, and Archive, the Courthouse, the Marshall Islands Journal and Assumption Parish, among numerous others . I would like to acknowledge the full cooperation of many adoptive parents, particularly those on the Wasatch International list serve. Additionally, I am especially grateful to my parents, Linda and Terry Walsh, for sharing me with Dennis and Daisy Momotaro.

Appendix A

Letter from adoptive Parent Concerning Child’s Adjustment

“As far as adopting older children goes, it seems to be working out well with K. He is at a good age for this I think. I’ve been reading books on toddler adoption and they say that the toddler can be expected to grieve and cry and regress in behavior (i.e. potty training, etc) for a few weeks only. If it lasts more than that then they need counseling. Looking back I can see that K. has gone through several phases already and has apparently worked through the worst of his grief, etc. in about a week and a half. The first couple days we were traveling and there was constant stimulus of new and amazing things. He was distracted enough by these to get his mind off the loss and grief. When we slowed down, waited in a line somewhere, and at bed time, he was inconsolable in his grief. It was really heart rending. We hugged him a lot and he slept with us, falling asleep when he was exhausted from crying. I felt totally inadequate as a mother to this little boy during these days and afraid I’d never be able to provide what heneeded. But, I had sworn to do this in the court, and I was already growing fond of the little guy and rationally I knew it would get better in time.

The next phase was one of silent compliance, almost like defeat. He would move or do whatever we indicated he should do. He didn’t fight anything. He also didn’t respond to anything (even questions I KNEW I was asking correctly in Marshallese). He didn’t smile or laugh or run around. Just stood stock still. Periodically, he’d start to cry quietly and moan this mantra, “I want to go home, I want my mama, ” over and over again. If I never hear those phrases again in Marshallese, I’ll be very happy! This phase lasted 4 or 5 days, with the crying spells becoming less frequent. He would also still cry all out when he was really tired, etc.

The next phase, he started responding to questions about “Are you hungry?” etc. with just a yes or no or nod of his head. He also would occasionally smile or play timidly, especially with other kids. He would still cry and moan some, especially when tired.

The next 4 days or so he really blossomed! He didn’t cry or moan at all during the day and really laughs, speaks whole paragraphs to me (which I only understand about 1/3 of!), he’ll initiate contact with me and run up to show me things, we have developed habits (walk to the mail each morning, he unlocks and locks the car doors for us, etc.)

He loves these. He also really blossomed in playing with other kids. We tickle him and wrestle with him and he loves it. He plays tricks on us and laughs. He runs constantly, full of joy. He still fights going to sleep at night. He’ll stay awake until midnight if we don’t put him to bed. When we do, he cries loudly for about 5 to 10 minutes and then stops abruptly when he falls asleep. The crying is not so much a moan of “I want to go home” as an outraged cry of “I don’t want to go to bed, come get me up, NOW”. He doesn’t cry when he wakes up anymore.

Just hops out of bed and comes downstairs to find us. He eats well (always did from the first day or so). In typical toddler fashion, he doesn’t want to eat vegetables (probably hasn’t seen too many green veggies in his life anyway) and gets in ruts where he wants only peanut butter and bread for breakfast, lunch and supper) He’s learning English fast and asks me “What is this” pointing to objects, to learn the English names.

I think his age is about the upper limit for the transition going so smoothly long term. I don’t remember being 3 1/2, so I figure in a few years he may not even remember a time when he wasn’t with us. Or maybe he will, since this is a pretty memorable event in his life. He will still be pretty bonded and comfortable with us though and probably won’t remember enough about his family and life in Marshall Islands to still long for it again. An older child probably understands and comprehends what is happening better as it happens and may be easier during the first week or so after the adoption, but is probably going to have stronger long term difficulties with it all. Just my perspective on this……….”

Now more than a year later he is fluent in English, claims to have forgotten all Marshallese, and is thoroughly adapted to life here with us. His memories of his birth family are fading, although he still remembers them. We really want to take him back to Majuro before too much longer so he won’t let go of his roots too entirely. I’d like for him to regain some of his Marshallese and to remember and feel a tie to his homeland and birth family. We write letters and send pictures every couple months but they don’t write back much. It is difficult for them to read and write even in Marshallese, I think. I encourage K. to sent notes and drawings to his birth mom and dad also which he does but it doesn’t seem too important to him.”

Appendix B

Reasons stated on agency forms for the relinquishing of children for adoption:

(Personal Communication, Wasatch International Adoptions Staff)

Male age two/female age 6: “Head of the family does not have a job and does not have a means of supporting his family.” female–newborn (from outer island): “To receive health and find knowledge. Also there isn’t enough money to meet the needs of the family.”

Female age 3/male age 6/male age 5/female age 7: “The mother does not work, and the father died and they have a difficult life.” This mother was living in the “cook house” with all of her children after the father had died of complications of diabetes.

Female–2 months: “To receive blessings and knowledge and health and most importantly change a life of poverty/problems to blessings.” This baby’s mother was young, and had abandoned her several times. Friends were caring for the baby. The mother wanted to place the baby for adoption because the father was a Vietnamese man who she’d slept with for money.

Male newborn: “From the two of us on our own, we need help with this child because there isn’t enough money with us to support him.”

Male age 5: “Because there isn’t a lot of money to support him.” This boy’s father drinks a lot.

Male 6 months: “Because they don’t have enough money to take care of them and this is the reason we want to give our child.”

Male age 8: “To receive knowledge.” I met this boy’s grandparents. He was living with grandparents, and they were also concerned that they were getting older. The grandmother was losing her eyesight, and was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to care for him. Both parents living on an outer island were in favor of this decision.

Male age 5/female age 8: “They can’t support them financially.” These children were also in horrible circumstances. The boy was seriously neglected–more than the girl, but they were both left on their own a lot to fend for themselves, and because they lived near the dump, frequently ate from the dump.

Male age 10: “They don’t have enough for life (‘ejab bwe air mour‘) in the way of money, and the father drinks a lot.” This mother was a very loving mother, but was very abused by her husband.

Male age 3/female 8 months: “Because there isn’t enough money to take care of the children.”

Appendix C

Agencies Facilitating RMI Adoptions

  • Adoption Choices
  • Children’s House International
  • Tedi Bear Adoptions
  • Pacific Joy
  • Focus on Children
  • Wasatch International Adoptions
  • Hope International
  • Adoption Pro’s
  • Adoption Associates
  • Journey’s of the Heart
  • Adoption Pros  The Republic of the Marshall Islands. (Online). Available: (1999, October 19).  Carroll, Vern  1970
  • Introduction: What Does ‘Adoption’ Mean? In Adoption in Eastern Oceania, edited by Vern Carroll, 3-17. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Carucci, Laurence M  1989
  • The Source of the Force in Marshallese Cosmology. In The Pacific Theater: Island Representations of World War II, edited by Geoffrey White and L Lindstrom, 73-96. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Children’s House International Adoption Information for the Marshall Islands. (Online). Available: (1999, October 19). Connell, John 1991
  • The New Micronesia: Pitfalls and Problems of Dependent Development. Pacific Studies 14(2): 87-120. Fischer, J L 1970
  • Adoption on Ponape. In Adoption in Eastern Oceania, edited by Vern Carroll, 292-313. Honolulu:University of Hawaii Press. Hau’ofa, Epeli1993
  • Sea of Islands. In A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Island, edited by E Waddell, V Naidu, and E Hau’ofa, 2-16. Suva: University of the South Pacific. Honolulu Advertiser 1999
  • Rapid increase in adoption rate wins a bonus for Hawaii. 10 October. B1. Horin, Adele 1999
  • Adopting Identities. Sydney Morning Herald. Daily. 17 September. p.13. Howard, A and J Kirkpatrick 1989
  • Social Organization. In Developments in Polynesian Ethnology, edited by A Howard and Robert Borofsky, 47-94. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Joint Council on International Children’s Services FY98 Orphan Visa Statistics. (Online). Available: (1999, October 19). Kiste, Robert C1993
  • New Political Statuses in American Micronesia. In Contemporary Pacific Societies: Studies in Development and Change, edited by Victoria Lockwood, Thomas Harding and Ben Wallace, XX. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • MIJ, Marshall Islands Journal. Majuro. Weekly. 1999
  • Marshall Islands Judge Johnson critical of adoption of Marshallese baby in US, calls it s ‘black market’ transaction. 30(48). 1999
  • Booming baby business. . . Out of control. 30(6):1. 1999
  • Plan will kill adoptions. 30(6), 1999
  • Immigration halts baby passports. 30(41): 3. 1998
  • Our saddest export: Parents look to the US for the future of their children. 29(1):1. 1998
  • Then one more baby needed adoption. 29(5): 1. 1998
  • Wants baby back. 29(20).
  • Marshall Islands Vital and Health Statistics Abstract 1992-1996 1997
  • September. Majuro, Marshall Islands: Bureau of Health, Planning, and Statistics, Ministry of Health and Environment.Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Final Report of the Adoption Task Force1999
  • 8 September. Majuro, Marshall Islands. 15 pgs. Pacific Island Populations Data Sheet1999
  • (Online) Available: (1999, November 15)
  • Pacific Joy Adoption Agency (Online). Available: http://www.pacific (1999, October 19) Page, Susan 1999
  • Adoptions of foster children climb 29% in two years. The Honolulu Advertiser. Daily. 24 September. A12. Rynkiewich, Michael 1976
  • Adoption and Land Tenure among Arno Marshallese. In Transactions in Kinship: Adoption and Fosterage in Oceania, edited by Ivan Brady, 93-119
  • Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Selected Pacific Economies: A Statistical Summary, No. 14 1998
  • Noumea, New Caledonia. Smith, J Jerome 1976
  • Rotanese Fosterage: Counter example of An Oceanic Pattern. In Transactions in Kinship: Adoption and Fosterage in Oceania, edited by Ivan Brady, 247-270. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Wasatch International Adoptions The Marshall Islands Adoption (Online). Available:, October 19).



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About the Author

Musings of the Lame was started in 2005 primarily as a simple blog recording the feelings of a birthmother as she struggled to understand how the act of relinquishing her first newborn so to adoption in 1987 continued to be a major force in her life. Built from the knowledge gained in the adoption community, it records the search for her son and the adoption reunion as it happened. Since then, it has grown as an adoption forum encompassing the complexity of the adoption industry, the fight to free her sons adoption records and the need for Adoptee Rights, and a growing community of other birthmothers, adoptive parents and adopted persons who are able to see that so much what we want to believe about adoption is wrong.

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