On his law firm’s website, Paul D. Petersen boasts that in addition to having 15 years of experience as an adoption attorney, he has “a unique insight and passion in assisting Marshallese birth families with their adoption plans.”
What Petersen failed to disclose is that he actually was engaged in human smuggling, according to a 32-count indictment announced by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
Petersen, who also serves as Maricopa County (Arizona) Assessor, and his co-defendant Lynwood Jennet would recruit, pay, and transport expectant mothers from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. for the purpose of giving birth and then having them adopted by American families.
Through his adoption agency, Petersen is accused of arranging for at least 29 adoptions in Arizona alone between November 2015 and May 2019. But it did not end in Arizona. Petersen faces similar charges in Utah, where he brought as many as 40 Marshallese women over three years and in Arkansas, where officials characterized the scheme in the severest terms possible.
“Make no mistake, this is the purest form of human trafficking,” said Duane Kees, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas during a news conference detailing the charges included in a 19-count indictment.
It was also a pure money-making scheme that Petersen used for his personal benefit. By charging families between $25,000 and $40,000 per adoption, it is estimated he raked in about $2.7 million in less than two years.
Arrested on Tuesday night, he also faces charges for allegedly committing fraud in Arizona by getting the Marshallese women coverage under state-funded healthcare in order to pay for delivery costs, which amounted to more than $814,000. During one of the multi-state raids, eight more pregnant mothers were found in one of the houses used for them until they gave birth.
The Petersen case may be extraordinary, but adoption of Marshallese babies is not, even though they run afoul of the Marshall Islands Adoption Act of 2002, which makes it illegal to use financial incentives to solicit an adoption.
It was partly a response to a trend in the 1990s when pregnant Marshallese women were being flown to Hawaii to give birth. Reform of Hawaii’s state law, however, did not end the practice so much as it shifted to states with looser laws, like Arkansas, according to an article in the Wilson Quarterly.
In fact, one circuit court judge told Arkansas Public Media that 99 percent of the adoption consent cases he’s heard in recent years involve Marshallese children.
“Here in northwest Arkansas it’s clear that most of the birth mothers are doing it out of financial need,” said Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin.
If law enforcement and legislators want to prevent another Petersen from exploiting the law and children in the future, then they need to hand down a tough sentence and they need to tighten up adoption laws which provide traffickers the room they require to commit their crimes.