SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA) — Sharing is a big part of Marshallese culture. But we’re not just talking about food and clothing. It even applies to children. 

But old island rituals may not translate into their American home.

“We have a phrase…it [translated to] no matter where the child is, how far the child goes, the child will eventually find his or her way back to the natural family,” said Melisa Laelan, the president of the Arkansas Coalition of the Marshallese.

In the Natural State, that’s not always the case. 

“In the Marshallese population, adoption is a very open thing. In Arkansas law, it is not,” said Josh Bryant, an attorney in Rogers.

With over 12,000 Marshallese people residing in Northwest Arkansas, and many living in poverty, putting a child up for adoption is one way families live to see another day. Depending on the arrangement, birth mothers can receive thousands of dollars and other benefits in exchange for their newborn. 

“Vulnerable mothers know they will have their rent paid and food on the table as long as they are pregnant and give their child up for adoption. And so they get stuck in a cycle of pregnancy, adoption, pregnancy, adoption, pregnancy, adoption. And they can never get out of it,” Bryant said.  

Some have even likened it to human trafficking, calling Marshallese adoption a big business. 

“There’s a lot of money floating around. And so I think that may have tainted how the practice is done sometimes,” Bryant said. 

So who’s to blame? Bryant points the finger at multiple groups. 

Although most often the victims, some biological parents realize they can cash in on their child. A poor legislative scheme enables a process full of loopholes. And crooked lawyers, representing the adoptive parents, may make empty promises to expectant mothers in exchange for their children and not necessarily look out for anyone’s best interests. 

“The birth mothers, most of the time, assume that’s their attorney and they don’t understand that they have no legal representation going into this process,” said Andrea McCurdy, a family law attorney.

That’s why McCurdy and Michaela Montie created Shared Beginnings. It’s an organization which works directly with mothers, to help them gain access to health care, provide legal counsel and offer support. 

“We want to make sure there is a different level of integrity in the way we go about this. We want to show them that we really care about them,” said Michaela Montie, who created Shared Beginnings.

Bryant is also addressing the problem at the legislative level. He’s proposed a plan to Arkansas lawmakers which creates transparency, ensures there’s no coercion from lawyers and criminalizes the solicitation of children. 

“It is unconscionable for someone to go to a pregnant woman and say, ‘I will give you money if you will place your child up for adoption.’ That practice has got to stop,” Bryant said. 

The plan is to get a draft in front of the general assembly in 2019. But before that happens, Laelan says the Marshallese culture can still be celebrated, but must be updated. 

“If we are worried about adoptions and it is growing at the rate it is growing now, then there needs to be more serious steps that we need to take,” Laelan said.

Misconduct when it comes to adoption isn’t exclusive to the Marshallese people. It can be seen in vulnerable communities across the Natural State.

This is one of several in-depth stories our team has covered on both the Marshallese population and adoption in Arkansas.

To see our story on the history of the Marshallese people in Arkansas, click here.

To see our story on the cost of adoption for Arkansas families, click here.