When Civil Beat began its investigation into illegally arranged adoptions of Marshallese babies, the reporters and editors started with a central question.

This has been going on for 20 years, why hasn’t anyone done anything about it?

Our series “Black Market Babies,” published in late 2018, found that some private attorneys were flying pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to give birth and then put their babies up for adoption to American families. Their work was facilitated by lax enforcement of existing regulations.

After the series was published, John Hill, Civil Beat’s investigations editor and a lead reporter on the project, doubted government authorities would ever take action.  “I heard crickets” after the project ran, he said.

But that changed two weeks ago, when the findings spotlighted in the Civil Beat series were backed up by actions of state and federal prosecutors in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah.

Arizona attorney Paul Petersen, who is also the elected assessor in Maricopa County, was a central figure in the Civil Beat series. He was  charged in all three states for violating multiple state and federal laws while arranging Marshallese adoptions. And a federal prosecutor in Arkansas said more cases like Petersen’s are coming.

Earlier this year, a well-known fixer who worked with Petersen, was charged in the Marshall Islands with human trafficking. In direct response to Civil Beat’s reporting, a Texas attorney who specializes in Marshallese adoptions was barred from doing international adoptions.

Paul Petersen is the elected assessor in Maricopa County, Arizona, which covers the Phoenix metro area. He is one of the most active adoption lawyers handling babies from the Marshall Islands. (2013 photo) Maricopa County Assessor's Office

“It was pretty stunning to see prosecutors crack down so aggressively,” said Hill. “I was shocked at the scale of what (Petersen) was doing (according to prosecutors).”

Jessica Terrell, an editor on the project, agreed. “It’s clear that these activities are illegal and have gone on for years … Given that, it’s pretty remarkable to see so many cases suddenly going forward now,” she said.

We think this type of project reflects why investigative journalism by local newsrooms, one of the most endangered parts of the media ecosystem these days, remains a vital resource. Our stories were eventually picked up — and triggered fresh reporting — by media outlets in Arizona, shining a wider spotlight on illegal adoptions.

But for small newsrooms like ours, the logistics and required resources of investigative reporting also remain a challenge.

How We Did It

The project, led by Hill, Terrell, multimedia reporter Emily Dugdale, producer April Estrellon and Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler, started in 2017 as a podcast focused on a 25-year-old Marshallese adoptee’s journey to reunite with his birth family – and connect with his Pacific Island culture.

Early in the reporting, Terrell heard health care workers raise red flags about a surge in pregnant Micronesian women showing up at hospitals in Hawaii to give birth.     

The initial plan eventually morphed into a sprawling multi-state and international investigation that took our reporters to Arizona, Utah and Arkansas, as well as the Marshall Islands.

We examined property records and numerous court documents in the U.S. and the Marshall Islands – and interviewed birth mothers, parents who were adopting the children, judges, social workers and even some of the lawyers. Petersen, however, never agreed to speak with Civil Beat, although his attorney, Matt Long, answered questions during an interview.

Still a shroud of secrecy hung over these adoptions, since those court records aren’t public.

So reporters had to be creative in developing sources and leads on individual cases. Scouring social media pages, including those of friends of Petersen’s Facebook page, allowed the reporters to find some of the Marshallese women and American adoptive families. One of the reporters was active in online forums.

A church service at the Uliga United Church of Christ in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, draws many families. Our reporters travelled to the far-flung island to talk to parents who had given up their babies to U.S. families. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

The reporters visited one house in Utah where mothers were put up until they gave birth and the adoptions were finalized. They only found the house because lawyers were required, by law, to post notices in local papers seeking potential objections from the birth dads. The address of the house was listed in the notices.

Much of the reporting, particularly critical interviews with Marshallese mothers who gave their babies up for adoptions and their families, had to be conducted through hard-to-find translators. We also wanted to ensure that the mothers’ voices, and a fuller portrait of their lives, were a central part of the project.

Hawaii Connections

For us, this was very much a local story. Hawaii has the largest population of Marshallese immigrants in the world, many of them poor.

While prosecutors have been investigating cases on the mainland, Civil Beat’s reporting also spotlighted two attorneys with ties to Hawaii who facilitated adoptions of Marshallese children.

Oahu attorney Laurie Loomis flew women to Honolulu, where they stayed in Waikiki hotels or an apartment in Aiea, Civil Beat reported. A fixer would take the women to medical appointments and look after them until they gave birth.

Another attorney, Gordon Benjamin, at one time worked for the agency designated by the Marshall Islands government to do official adoptions. But  he later started arranging them himself. He lined up a pastor on the Big Island to meet the women at the Hilo airport and get them oriented. He said he only got involved in the adoptions after the women had given birth and consulted with their families, although his view that this was legal was not shared by the Marshallese government.

This started as a Hawaii story and as we continue to look into what local officials are doing, if anything, to crack down on black market adoptions here, it will continue to be a strong Hawaii story.

We think it also shows what an important role Hawaii can play on issues that reach far beyond our shores.

Editor’s Note: Readers often wonder about the reporting and editing process and other news practices. We think it’s important to explain our decisions and do so from time to time in our ongoing series called “Behind The Story.” For even more information about how Civil Beat and other news outlets do their journalism, check out our “Understanding The News” section.

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