As anyone who has ever watched Hawaii Five-O can attest that crimes can and do occur in places considered an island paradise. Paradise, law enforcement, and adoption recently collided regarding adoptive placements made by a U.S. attorney working with birth mothers from the Marshall Islands. Numerous criminal charges have been filed which allege this attorney’s practices are a “commercialization of children.” Those involved in adoptions in any capacity should be aware of this disturbing situation.
The adoptive placements which gave rise to the criminal charges took place here in the United States and were made with U.S. couples. Nevertheless, the birth mothers making the placements were from the Marshall Islands. These women traveled to the U.S. while pregnant, gave birth here in the U.S., and made placements of their children here in the U.S. The common denominator in all of the cases was the participation of attorney Paul D. Petersen. Petersen is facing federal charges in Arkansas and state charges in Utah and Arizona for his handling of these cases. The Marshallese birth mothers are considered victims in these cases and have not been charged.
The key to understanding what has occurred is having some background on the Marshall Islands. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii. The islands are named after John Marshall, a British explorer who visited the island chain in 1788. Five individual islands and twenty-nine coral atolls make up the Marshall Islands, but only twenty-four atolls are inhabited. The estimated population of the Marshall Islands was 53,066 in 2016; the current population is estimated to be around 68,000. These inhabitants speak Marshallese.
This island country has one of the highest birth rates in the Pacific. And with this high birth rate came rampant and unregulated black market adoptions in the 1990s. The Marshall Islands responded by enacting the Adoption Act of 2002 which only allows international adoption of Marshallese if granted by the Republic of the Marshall Islands High Court.
To prevent Marshallese women from being exploited, COFA (Compact of Free Association), an international agreement between the United States and three Pacific Island sovereign states (Republic of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia), was amended in 2003. As originally enacted in 1986, the Compact allows visa-free entry to the U.S. by Marshallese citizens. As amended, the Compact included stricter regulations concerning adoption and prohibited travel from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. for adoption purposes. COFA provides that “A person who is coming to the United States…for adoption in the United States is ineligible for adoption under the Compact.” In fact, it is illegal under federal law for citizens from the Marshall Islands to travel to the U.S. for the sole purpose of placing babies for adoption.
The Marshall Islands’ government agency in charge of overseeing international adoptive placement, the Central Adoption Authority, has weighed in on pregnant Marshallese women traveling to the U.S. The agency states that COFA and the law clearly prohibit Marshallese women from traveling to the U.S. for adoption. Even if a pregnant Marshallese woman is traveling to the U.S. for another reason, such as a job, she would still need a special visa to travel here per the U.S. State Department.
Part of the problem with adoptive placements by Marshallese women is their lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions. They are vulnerable to unethical adoption scams because they do not grasp the concept of adoption as understood in the U.S. The Marshallese have a fluid notion of a family where related members of a generation often jointly parent a child, so adoptive parents may be considered merely joint parents with the placing birth mothers. Many of the Marshallese women were under the false belief that adoption was only temporary and that their child would be returned to them when the child was older. Birth mothers were also reportedly told their children would grow up in the U.S. and be able to provide for their families back home.
Cultural differences, as pointed out in a piece in The New Republic, also impact a Marshallese woman’s response to a request that she places her child for adoption. The Marshallese have a culture of generosity, making it unlikely she would turn down a request. Also, poverty is an issue in the Marshall Islands which made the offer of money for a placement one that might be too good to refuse.
So how did a country thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland with a relatively small population become a hotspot source for alleged illegal adoptions? The answer is an attorney who handled numerous such adoptions, Paul D. Petersen. Honolulu Civil Beat delved into Mr. Petersen’s background to find his connection with the Marshall Islands. It reported that, as a young man, Petersen served as a Mormon missionary in the Marshall Islands, lived in that country for two years, and learned to speak Marshallese. He made lasting contacts in the Marshall Islands from his time spent living in Majuro, the country’s largest city and its capital. Since so few people speak Marshallese, Petersen had an immediate connection with citizens of that country by speaking to them in their native tongue.
The accused attorney was introduced to adoptions as a young man. While still in college, Petersen was recruited by an international adoption agency to travel to the Marshall Islands to arrange for adoptions. Being fluent in Marshallese and familiar with the country’s customs made Petersen an asset to the adoption agency.
After returning to the U.S., Petersen went to law school, receiving his law degree from the University of Arizona in 2002. He subsequently became licensed to practice law in Arkansas, Arizona, and Utah. Petersen ran an adoption law practice in Mesa, Arizona, where he arranged adoptions from the Marshall Islands as early as 2005. In addition to his legal work, Petersen became involved in local politics. He won a special election for a $76,000 per year county assessor’s job for Maricopa County, Arizona, the state’s largest county. Petersen was re-elected to this position in 2016 and was serving in this position at the time of his arrest in October 2019. Because he refuses to resign per the Associated Press, Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors has suspected Petersen from his elected office pending resolution of the criminal charges against him.
Petersen’s adoption work with Marshallese birth mothers led to state criminal charges in Arizona and Utah and federal charges in Arkansas, the home of the biggest Marshallese community in the U.S. Federal agencies participating in the multi-state investigation of Petersen included the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. In all, 62 state and federal charges have been brought against Petersen in three states—32 in Arizona, 19 in Arkansas, and 11 in Utah. If convicted on all counts, he is facing a maximum of 315 years in prison.
Prosecutors in all three states say Petersen illegally offered money to Marshallese women to come to the U.S. to place their babies in at least seventy adoption cases. The women were purportedly paid up to $10,000 for making a placement. Petersen also allegedly inflated the birth mothers’ expenses to keep more money from couples who adopted their babies.
The Utah Attorney General conducted a two-year investigation into Petersen before charges were filed. The probe began following a call to a human-trafficking tip line made in October 2017. Staff at several Salt Lake City area hospitals reported an “influx” of women from the Marshall Islands delivering babies and then putting them up for adoption.
Petersen’s adoption work was characterized as a “baby mill” by one horrified adoptive family according to a DeseretNews report. The Marshallese women Petersen who worked within Utah received little to no prenatal care. Large groups of these pregnant women would stay at a property Petersen owned before their giving birth. Despite being an Arizona resident, the accused attorney had bought a four-bedroom split-level house in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Valley City in 2017. As reported by Fox 10 Phoenix, one Utah couple told police they visited a property Petersen owned and found fifteen women there sleeping on mattresses on the bare floor.
According to the Utah Attorney General, Petersen recruited over forty pregnant women from the Marshall Islands over the last three years and transported them to Utah where he paid to place them place their children for adoption. This practice, in the Attorney General’s view, was treating the babies like commercial products.
Petersen’s first court appearance in Utah was on November 15, 2019, at the courthouse in Salt Lake City. A three-day preliminary hearing was scheduled for February 10th through 12th on the eleven charges he is facing: 1 count pattern of unlawful activity; 4 counts of human smuggling; 3 counts communications fraud; and 3 counts sale of a child.
Petersen was also active in Arkansas in placing babies born to Marshallese women for adoption. These efforts were made easier by the fact that Springdale, Arkansas, located in the northwest corner of that state, has the largest population concentration of Marshall Islands natives outside the island country. A multi-count federal indictment was returned against Petersen in Arkansas which connected him to smuggling, wire fraud, mail fraud, visa fraud, and money laundering. This indictment alleges that Petersen and his associate, Maki Takehisa, a citizen of the Marshall Islands, sought out pregnant women in the Marshall Islands and offered them money to place their babies for adoption.
The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, Duane Kees, reported that it was not uncommon to find a dozen pregnant Marshallese women about to give birth in one house. These women described how they were treated like property. According to Mr. Kees, the facts of the case against Petersen are “the purest form of human trafficking.”
A “not guilty” plea to these charges was entered by Petersen, and he has posted bail. He remains free but has been required to surrender his passport. He is also wearing an ankle monitor.
Investigations in Arizona revealed similar facts to what was found in Arkansas and Utah. A search warrant executed on October 8, 2019, in Arizona found eight pregnant women living at a house owned by Petersen in Mesa. Allegations were made that Petersen offered pregnant Marshallese women $1,000 for every month they were pregnant and up to $10,000 for making a placement.
In a different twist from the cases in Arkansas and Utah, the accused attorney is also alleged to have cheated the State of Arizona to the tune of $814,000. Petersen purportedly illegally obtained services from Arizona’s state health system, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), for the women with whom he was working; he did so by falsely claiming the women were Arizona residents. Petersen entered not guilty pleas to the Arizona charges as he did with the Arkansas charges.
To carry out his adoptions, Petersen had help. Ironically, he turned to Marshallese citizens for that help. He is said to have hired Marshallese women in Arizona, Arkansas, and Utah to assist the Marshallese birth mothers. Their duties included, among others, providing transportation, translating for them, and caring for them. In a classic hallmark of human trafficking, Petersen and his associates, per ABC 15 Arizona, took the Marshallese womens’ passports from them when they got to the United States, giving Petersen more control over them.
According to authorities, adoptive parents paid Petersen up to $40,000 for his services per adoption. Arizona’s Attorney General has made clear that his state’s investigation is focused on Petersen and his associates; the adoptive families involved are not being targeted. These families are one of the three categories of Petersen’s victims—the birth mothers, the babies, and the prospective adoptive parents. 40/29 News reported that a number of these prospective adoptive parents were unaware of the facts of their cases; in some instances, Petersen represented that the Marshallese birth mothers had been living in the U.S. for years.
While they may not be facing criminal charges, adoptive couples who were matched with a Marshallese birth mother and who were awaiting placement at the time of Petersen’s still faced a nightmare. With Petersen arrested, their matches and their family’s lives hung in the balance. Uncertainty as to how their cases would proceed led to emergency court hearings. In Arkansas, all of Petersen’s cases were taken from his law firm and assigned to an attorney ad litem.
Utah’s Attorney General pointed out that Petersen’s scheme exploited two highly vulnerable groups in two countries—pregnant women in the Marshall Islands and prospective adoptive parents in Utah. The Associated Press reports that he has assured adoptive parents, as did the Arizona Attorney General, that the adoptions handled by Petersen’s questionable practices will not be invalidated.
The arrest of and criminal proceedings against Petersen are likely to remove a major player in the adoptive placements of babies born to Marshallese women here in the U.S. Unfortunately, it will not, however, end the practice. Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, while expressing her appreciation for the actions taken by U.S. authorities against Petersen, noted her belief that other illegal adoption rings are still being operated.
Those connected to adoptions here in the U.S. should be more vigilant based on the disheartening and illegal practices which have come to light. Prospective adoptive parents must be wary of letting their hearts rule their heads. They should be diligent in asking an adoption entity questions about birth mothers regardless of whether these birth mothers are from the Marshall Islands. If the adoptive parents have a gut feeling that something is not right, then further investigation should be undertaken. Adoption practitioners themselves should keep a wary eye out for other practitioners who may be playing fast and loose with, or simply ignoring, applicable law. A word to the authorities or a licensing agency when questionable behavior is noticed could help protect vulnerable birth mothers and prospective adoptive parents.
When an adoptive placement is handled correctly, paradise should result because all members of the adoption triad walk away with a positive result. Adoptive parents have a dream fulfilled to parent a child. Birth mothers have peace of mind that their child will be raised in a stable and loving home. Adoptees are given the opportunity for a wonderful life. When adoption practitioners break the law, there is trouble in paradise and vulnerable people are exploited. Unfortunately, current adoption practices with Marshallese birth mothers, which appear to constitute human trafficking, have caused trouble in their island paradise as well as in the United States.