Marshall Islands officials recently charged a Springdale man with human trafficking, accusing him of offering a woman $10,000 if she'd travel to the U.S. and give up her unborn child for adoption, according to the Marshall Islands Journal.
The March 14 arrest of Justin Aine, 46, comes after years of mounting concern internationally that Marshallese women are being exploited and coerced into giving up their children for adoption to American couples.
"The community was not happy with him," Melisa Laelan, the founder of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese in Springdale, said Wednesday about Aine. "That was his job, and he felt he was doing the right thing, but it is outside the norm and the community felt he was doing the wrong thing."
Laelan said she talked with Aine about the adoptions.
"He was a friend ... a friend consumed with money," Laelan said.
Aine was charged by the assistant attorney general with one count each of trafficking in person, unlawful solicitation and monetary inducement, according to an article in the Journal.
Aine is accused of recruiting Susan Koraja by giving her $120 cash and the promise of $10,000 in exchange for her giving up her 1-month-old for adoption when they reached the United States, according to the newspaper. Charged along with Aine were Aiti "Hatty" Anidrep, 49, and Sally Abon, 53.
Aine promised Koraja that he would help her family move to the United States if she gave up her child for adoption, according to the Journal.
The case stems from a January 2018 incident in which Marshall Islands immigration officials intervened at Amata Kabua International Airport when Koraja and another woman said they were traveling to the United States with Aine, according to the Journal.
The women admitted they were coming to the United States to have their babies adopted, but Aine was interviewed and said he was assisting the women in visiting relatives, according to the newspaper.
The fast-growing number of Marshallese women in Northwest Arkansas giving up their children for adoption has raised questions since 2015 among the area's legal, medical and advocacy communities.
Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin said at the time that about 90 percent of the adoptions he handled were Marshallese. Benton County Circuit Judge Doug Schrantz said he also had noticed more adoptions involving Marshallese people. He said the only time he sees Marshallese individuals in his court is for adoption proceedings.
Concerns about the adoptions include whether the women are signing documents in a language they understand and whether they know they have no rights to the child once he is adopted. In the Marshallese culture, adoptions are open and birth mothers often share in the child-rearing.
Some questioned if the women know all their rights, such as the right to withdraw consent for an adoption.
Still other advocates want to tighten requirements about how the expectant mothers are reimbursed for expenses related to their pregnancies.
A bill in the current legislative session would add restrictions for private lawyers who handle adoptions.
Northwest Arkansas has the largest population of Marshallese in the United States outside of Hawaii, census figures show. Islander culture is supportive of adoptions and very averse to abortion, advocates such as the Marshallese government's consulate in Springdale have said.
Two Fayetteville lawyers' firms have figured prominently in the adoptions: Marsha Woodruff with Woodruff Law Firm, and Vaughn-Michael Cordes with Cordes Law Firm. Woodruff said in 2015 that about 75 percent of her adoption cases involve Marshallese babies.
Since 2015, at least four Marshallese women have been convicted of fraud in Benton and Washington counties for cases that involved adoptions. In all the cases, the pregnant women accepted money from two sets of would-be parents, then failed to give the child to one or both sets.
Aine was interviewed as part of the fraud investigations. He told police in 2015 that he was working as an interpreter for Cordes.
Aine, who was born in the Marshall Islands, told detectives he receives $1,500 for every woman who signs initial adoption paperwork. He said another $1,500 is paid to him when the adoption is finalized, according to court documents.
Birth mothers giving up children for adoption through Vaughn-Michael Cordes receive $1,200-$1,500 a month for expenses, Aine said in his interview with detectives. He said it is a set monthly amount. He said the mothers could call asking for more money for other expenses.
Cordes could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A telephone number listed for him is no longer in service.
Woodruff said Wednesday that she's not sad or disappointed about Aine's arrest.
"He has been the root of most of the problems in Northwest Arkansas," she said. "The problems the last five years can all be traced back to Justin Aine."
Woodruff said it's illegal and wrong to fly pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States for the purpose of adoptions. "His arrest may stop the movement of Marshallese women, and that's why his arrest was so fabulous," she said.
Aine's charges may bring a temporary decline in Marshallese adoptions in the state, but laws still need to be changed to improve the process, according to Rogers lawyer Josh Bryant.
Bryant is the father of two adopted Marshallese children and became personally involved in the adoption issue a few years ago. Bryant testified last month at a legislative committee hearing in favor of House Bill 1488.
The bill by Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, won approval last month of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs. It's awaiting approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill would create the offense of "unlawful solicitation for the relinquishment of parental rights." It would be a felony, punishable by six to 30 years in prison, to threaten, use physical force or otherwise coerce a parent to give an unborn child up for adoption.
The bulk of the bill would increase requirements on lawyers who arrange adoptions. They would have to report and account for expenses paid for the mother's care by the couple who seek adoption. The bill would also require the expectant mother and adoptive parents to have separate attorneys.
The Marshallese government has supported similar measures.
In the 2018 fiscal session of the state Legislature, the attorney general of the Marshall Islands supported a bill by then-Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Springdale, requiring approval by the Marshallese government of any adoption of children of Marshall Islanders. The bill failed.
Williams, who works for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, stressed Tuesday that he was speaking for himself and not the department. He was aware that Aine was arrested and charged in the Marshall Islands.
"It's been occurring for years," Williams said of issues with Marshallese adoptions. "Unfortunately, laws in the state are not strict enough."
Williams said he's glad to see the Marshall Islands take action to stop illegal practices.
Aine has a preliminary hearing set for April 12, according to the Marianas Variety.
Metro on 03/28/2019