Lawyer, Arizona elected official and former missionary to the Marshall Islands Paul Petersen has received six years in federal prison from the state of Arkansas for arranging illegal adoptions of Marshallese babies. He still faces up to 31.5 years more in total from trials in Utah and Arizona for the same crimes.
Timothy Banks, a federal judge in Arkansas, handed Petersen the sentence over video.
Petersen’s crime involved the illegal transport of individuals into the U.S. for private profit. There were estimated to be at least 70 cases, from which he took in over $2.7 million from adoptive parents.
Petersen claimed that he did not know what he did was illegal. However, he gave statements to government officials which he knew to be false in several states while arranging adoptions. Statements included dates of mothers’ arrivals and residencies.
Further discrediting the claim of ignorance is that the defendant also was a practicing attorney who was for six years the assessor for the Phoenix metro area. Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the U.S.
Petersen arranged the transport of these women into the U.S., arranging to pay them $10,000 in exchange for their children. In the end they would get less, having much deducted for “living expenses.” Among other misrepresentations given to the women were that the process was legal and they were not wholly surrendering their children to the new parents.
The mothers were brought to the U.S. sometimes just days before giving birth, kept under close watch, and even forced to hand over their passports.
Most of the women who were brought into the scheme came from a prostitution camp in Majuro, the most populated of the Marshall Islands atolls. As young as 15, most came from extreme poverty and performed sex work in exchange for room and board. The camp was near the docks downtown and clients included men from ships on layover.
Many of the now-known details about the case came from Lynwood Jennet, a co-defendant in the cases who, upon arrest, immediately volunteered much of what is now known about the trafficking.
When young women from the prostitution camp would become pregnant, Jennet arranged to have them sent to Petersen in the U.S. There, the women lived together in houses and apartments.
At the time of the arrests, eight of the pregnant Marshallese women who had been brought over were living in a small apartment in Mesa, Arizona. Unnamed charities took over their care when the defendants were arrested.
Jennet became involved with Petersen’s scheme after she moved to the U.S. from the Marshall Islands in 2006. After he placed two of her own children with adoptive families, she began brokering further adoptions from the islands. Between 2016 and 2018 she reportedly made over $200,000 assisting in the operation.
Petersen, who was a Republican assessor in Arizona, defrauded that state for over $800,000 in public healthcare by arranging paperwork which claimed that the women giving birth were state residents.
Northwest Arkansas is home to the largest Marshallese population in the continental U.S.—15,000. Marshallese started moving there in the 1970s after one man, John Moody, settled in Springdale then sent word that work was plentiful and the cost of living low. The Marshallese have since become an important part of the culture and economy of Northwest Arkansas.
Attorney for the state of Arkansas Duane Kees claimed the women “described their ordeal as being treated like property.”
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is an independent country in a Compact of Free Association with the United States. This allows freedom of movement between the two countries and no visas are required for residency or employment.
Because of that freedom of movement there was an opening for exploitation, so laws were specifically created to make travel for the purpose of adoption illegal. “Make no mistake, this case is the purest form of human trafficking,” said Kees.
Paul Petersen grew up in the Church of Latter-day Saints and from 1998, when he was in his early 20s, spent two years as a missionary in the Marshall Islands. Many members of the Church—especially young men—do self-funded, two-year missions. They are expected to learn the local language and engage with potential converts up to 10 hours a day. Many have noted that his close connection to the culture and language afforded him a singular position for coercing Marshallese into involvement in his criminal activities.
While the eight expectant mothers in Mesa were living together in a small apartment, Petersen was living in a large house in a gated community in the same city. Court records show he also had several vacation homes and luxury cars.
Those familiar with the case say that he is very likely not the only person or lawyer currently exploiting Marshallese people through overseas adoptions.
So many parents are desperate for children that the adoption cost and ease of placement prove too enticing even when they may seem too good to be true. Many were surely blinded by their immediate desire for children. One mother reported requesting and paying for a child from Petersen on a Friday and being told on Monday that a newborn was ready to be picked up in Utah.
Countries with high international adoption rates—including China, India, Ukraine and Malawi—have comparable fees for adoption compared to what Petersen charged. However, those countries have long application processes and strict guidelines for who can adopt. Parents must also make multiple trips to the countries and stay for extended periods.
Even after details of the case were made known to the public, parents who had adopted with his organization wrote letters to judges on Petersen’s behalf.
Others have noted the hypocrisies of a supposedly deeply traditional and religious man exploiting some of the least privileged and most vulnerable in the world—in particular someone who initially went to the islands to “save” people.
In 2009, a similar conspiracy was uncovered in Samoa, with 80 young children being adopted through a Utah-based organization called Focus on Children. In additional to criminal charges the perpetrators were made to pay huge fines to enable the children to maintain contact with their birth families.
Perhaps the biggest question in the end is: What should happen to these children, their birth parents, and their adoptive families? Of all the effects of these crimes this may be the most lasting and damaging. It would be impossible for one party to decide what would be best for the children, and such a decision could easily be swayed by cultural biases.
Without such a barefaced villain as Paul Petersen on its face human trafficking continues in high numbers across the Pacific. It is quite possible we see people every day who are both witting and unwitting cogs in this gruesome machine.