From November 2015 to May 2019, attorney Paul D. Petersen solicited dozens of pregnant Marshallese women, convinced them to fly to the U.S. to give birth and adopt their babies off to Christian couples in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas. Birth mothers were paid $10,000—minus travel and housing expenses—and promised their children would be better off.
At least 29 U.S. couples paid Petersen $35,000 to $40,000 for each baby.
Petersen is now facing criminal charges across three states for trafficking dozens of Marshallese babies through an illegal adoption scheme.
Though illegal, these adoptions are not unheard of. Petersen was the subject of a 2017 investigation by Honolulu’s Civil Beat.
In a special report, Jessica Terrell explained "many of the birth mothers did not understand what they were agreeing to. In one heartbreaking study, more than 80 percent of birth mothers said they would not have followed through with the adoption if they had known their child would never return."
Adoptions in the Marshall Islands are not the binding contract they are in the U.S. legal system, and instead often occur between families as an act of community.
Petersen was arrested in Arizona on Oct. 8, where he faces 32 criminal charges related to fraudulent adoption practices including smuggling illegal aliens for commercial advantage and abetting illegal entry into the U.S. for financial gain.
Per the 1983 Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of Marshall Islands, adoptions must be sanctioned by the islands’ Central Adoption Agency, although citizens may live and work in the U.S. without a visa—making it difficult to stop pregnant women from traveling to the mainland seemingly on their own volition.
At the time of his arrest, Petersen was serving his second term as elected assessor of Maricopa County in Arizona. His biography boasts that he is a lifelong resident of Mesa and a fifth generation Arizonian "with familial tie that trace back to the territorial days of [the] state.”
Petersen also faces 11 criminal counts in Utah and 19 federal charges. An additional civil lawsuit was filed against Petersen by 13 couples living in Arkansas who intended to adopt children through him and want their money back.
According to a statement from the office of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Petersen even signed the Marshallese mothers onto state-funded health care to cover the cost of delivery, costing the state $814,000.
But Petersen wasn’t alone. Arizona woman Lynwood Jennet arranged for Marshallese women to travel to Arizona and back to the Pacific. Thirty-nine-year-old Maki Takehisa, a Marshallese woman living in Arkansas who provided translator services to Peterson was also arrested.
While some birth mothers remain near their children in the mainland after the adoption occurs, many returned to the Marshall Islands. Several pregnant women caught up in the scheme have been contact by another non-profit and licensed adoption agency in Arkansas, Shared Beginnings, to figure out their options.
If found guilty, Peterson faces up to 315 years in federal prison and a $5 million fine.
In Majuro, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine welcomed Petersen’s arrest. “Marshallese women have been induced by people like Petersen and his ilk for too long,” Heine said. “Although I am happy that the government of the Marshall Islands, namely the Office of the Attorney-General, was able to provide assistance that led to these convictions, I believe there are other illegal adoption rings out there that must be stopped,” she added.