Guam's adoption agency hits GMH for skipping proper adoption process
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
On June 26, 2018, a newborn baby boy wrapped in a bath towel inside a basket and with its umbilical cord still attached to it was found abandoned on the doorstep of a home in Dededo. The mother was eventually convicted of child abuse.
It may not be a run-of-the-mill story in a small island that takes pride in its reputation as a family-oriented community but the incident raised an alarm. Abandonment of newborns doesn’t often make headlines on Guam and statistics are not readily available. However, hushed anecdotes about mothers relinquishing their infants are being passed around in whispers. The shame and stigma attached to such a decision naturally make it an uncomfortable subject to talk about. Some mothers are forced to give up their newborns due to financial hardships, homelessness or inability to raise a family.
The sole doctor who performed abortions on Guam retired in 2018. Due to restricted options, some mothers decide to carry on with their pregnancies and surrender their babies after giving birth. In 2019, Ohala Adoptions, a nonprofit agency, was founded to offer another option for expectant mothers who otherwise seek to terminate their pregnancies.
According to Pamela Sablan, nursery supervisor at Guam Memorial Hospital, there were three to four newborn babies that were adopted at the hospital last year. No records from previous years were available. “There is probably more but it’s done outside GMH through Ohala or within the family arrangements,” she said.
In 2021, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero signed into law two adoption bills authored by then-Sen. Mary Torres. Public Law 36-39 streamlines the adoption system and includes adoption agencies in the process. Public Law 36-40 expands the Newborn Infant Safe Haven Act by allowing a mother to relinquish custody of the child to emergency medical service personnel, if she calls 911 and stays with the infant until personnel arrives, instead of having to bring the baby to a safe-haven facility.
The enactment of the bills was preceded by a heated debate in the Guam legislature, where human trafficking concerns were raised. But Torres argued that any adoption agency on Guam would already be mandated to comply with local law and the conditions of the Hague Convention regarding international adoptions.
“I believe everything seems to be working well, it’s just a matter of educating and informing the community about adoption,” Sablan said.
The adoption process at GMH is facilitated by the nursery, labor and delivery units and the obstetrician working hand in hand with a social worker, Sablan said. There are two ways by which adoption can be facilitated. “Mom/parents make arrangements with Ohala Adoptions. They are the ones assisting the mom and the adoptive parents, from paperwork to emotional support of both sides,” Sablan said.
“If mom already made arrangements on who will adopt her child, like a family member or somebody she chose, we just need to make sure that mom already settled or processed all the legal documents prior to discharging the baby to the adoptive parents. This may take some time and the baby might end up in the hospital longer if mom did not process the papers before she delivers,” she added.
Some mothers make ad hoc decisions. “Some moms/parents opted to do the adoption after delivery and the baby is already discharged,” Sablan said. “Ultimately, it is the mother’s decision if she wants to have her baby adopted and the hospital honors it. We assist mothers as much as we can, from emotional support to paperwork.”
However, the last-minute surrender of newborns without following the legal process is concerning, according to Lori Boss, founder of Ohala Adoptions. Despite having provided training at the hospital on the legal process of adoption, Boss said Ohala has never been contacted by GMH regarding babies relinquished by parents. "We never received a phone call from GMH," she said.
Based on her inquiry, Boss said some babies were surrendered with only the nurse or the doctor facilitating the process. “According to administrators and nurses I talked to there, this is a regular occurrence,” she said.
Boss said she had learned of one instance in which the baby was turned over by a nurse to a foster family in the hospital’s parking lot.
“We’d like to think that everyone who gets the baby is a good person, but that’s not always so,” she said, warning that surrendering babies to unvetted families raises a safety issue.
Ohala maintains pre-approved files of prospective families that have gone through thorough background checks, Boss said. “When a mom comes to us, we look through all the files. We have portfolios of families that want these babies and have done their work,” she said. "We let the moms choose."
The agency has rejected some families that did not meet the qualifications, she said. “We, as an agency, have the right to deny them. We don’t have to elect them to adopt a child. We have our own social worker who does the background checks.”
Boss said Ohala’s list includes 21 pre-approved local and stateside families who have members serving in the military. She said the agency opts for families that have roots in Guam.
Although Ohala offers adoption services, Boss said the agency prioritizes counseling to convince the mother to keep her child. "If a mom comes to us and says, 'I'm too poor I can't do this,' we advise her about programs that are available. We don't want a mother to give up her child just because she is poor. That's not the goal," Boss said. "Some of them are in college and we tell them that they have support."
The safe haven law is designed to prevent abandonment and Ohala’s goal is to ensure that babies are placed in safe environments, Boss said. “We don’t encourage parents to relinquish their babies, but (legal adoption) is a safer way than putting the baby in a garbage can or dropping it in the jungle,” she said.
Safe placement is paramount and it requires going through the proper channels and legal process, Boss said.
Sablan claimed the hospital coordinates the adoption process with the agency. “Ohala Adoptions is a big help as they do assist mom on processing the legal documents and they communicate/coordinate well with mom and the adoptive parents,” Sablan said. “Counseling is given by Ohala Adoptions. If it’s an adoption arranged by mom and within the family, we do not give counseling but we provide information on the hospital policy regarding adoption. We also coordinate with social workers if there’s any social issue that needs to be addressed.”
One of the challenges confronting GMH is the processing of legal documents, Sablan said. “We are unable to release the baby if the court order or papers are not finalized,” she said. “It’s easier if documents are already settled before mom delivers.