For more than a decade, several American lawyers lured pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to travel to the U.S. for illicit adoptions, and no one seemed to care.

Even though their methods looked like clear violations of a treaty between the two nations, the black market baby trade went on in plain sight, as Civil Beat documented in a series launched in November. Those in charge of enforcing the law, it seemed, did nothing.

That all began to change this year, when a well-known fixer who worked with adoption attorneys was charged in the Marshall Islands with human trafficking. Then, in response to Civil Beat’s reporting, a Texas adoption attorney who specialized in Marshallese birth mothers was barred from doing international adoptions.

But this week, the crackdown on illicit Marshallese adoptions went to a new level with the indictment of one of the best-known players, Arizona attorney Paul Petersen. Petersen was charged in three states — Arkansas, Arizona and Utah — with violating multiple state and federal laws by arranging for Marshallese women to fly to the U.S. for adoptions.

On the federal charges in Arkansas alone, Petersen is facing a maximum of 315 years in prison. The indictments lay out, in sometimes lurid detail, Petersen’s alleged scheme to transport scores of Marshallese women to the U.S. where they would give up their babies for adoptions.

Adoption attorney Paul Petersen, also the elected assessor of Maricopa County, Arizona, is facing a variety of federal and state charges in three states.

A dozen women were crammed into one house, for instance, sometimes four to a bedroom. Some pregnant women didn’t have beds, prosecutors say. They reported being treated as human chattel and, at least in Utah, said they’d had little or no prenatal care, contradicting what Petersen told adoptive American couples.

The baby pipeline, meanwhile, was generating millions of dollars of cash for Petersen, according to the indictments.

Petersen is alleged to have lied to judges, inflated his supposed costs and bilked Arizona’s Medicaid system.

The formerly high-flying Petersen, who used to drive to his public job as the elected Maricopa County Assessor in a white Jaguar, is being held on $500,000 cash bond.

A Wider Crackdown Expected

And the charges against Petersen are likely not the end of it.

Dak Kees, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said in an interview that he expects more charges related to Petersen’s case, as well as actions against “another group of people who had nothing to do with Petersen. They had their own little niche. We’re also after them, too.”

Kees would not name the new targets, but said he expected them to be charged by the end of the year. Civil Beat’s series mentioned several other attorneys involved in the Marshallese adoption business, including some that operate primarily in Hawaii or bring women to the U.S. through the state.

Utah authorities say Petersen housed Marshallese birth mothers at this house in West Valley City. Civil Beat visited the house last year as part of its investigation of Petersen. Emily Dugdale/Civil Beat

And yet, as long ago as 2007, an Arizona judge blocked a Petersen adoption, finding that he had “violated RMI laws,” as well as the treaty between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. An appellate court, while reversing the judge’s decision for a different reason, agreed in a footnote that the evidence supported his conclusion that the treaty had been breached.

Petersen and other lawyers continued to recruit women from the Marshall Islands. Only once, in 2011, was someone held to account. Teresa Snow, who ran an adoption agency in Utah, pleaded guilty to one count of aiding and abetting the illegal entry of an alien. Like the attorneys, Snow paid for the Marshallese birth mother’s airfare to the U.S., provided housing and took her to medical appointments. She got five years’ probation.

At the heart of the cases unveiled this year is a simple fact: Two decades ago, the Marshall Islands made it illegal for international adoptions to be done outside of a central authority. The law was changed in response to the well-documented exploitation of Marshallese birth mothers in international adoptions. In many cases, they mistakenly expected to have continued contact with their children after the adoption, as is the custom in the Marshall Islands, or that the children would return to them at the age of 18.

Under the Compact of Free Association between the two nations, Marshallese citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa. The exception, created as part of the reforms, was pregnant women planning to place their children for adoption. They are required to go through the central authority instead.

Many of the charges against Petersen involve alleged violations of that agreement.

“Mr. Petersen enticed and misled several women from the Marshall Islands to illegally travel to the United States in order to give birth and then immediately give their babies up for adoption before returning home,” Kees said in a news conference in Arkansas Wednesday. “Mr. Petersen lied to these mothers and instructed the mothers to lie to not only Customs officials but the Arkansas police.”

Arizona Attorney Paul Petersen, left, at a bail hearing Tuesday in Phoenix.

Once on the mainland, the mothers were coerced into doing the will of Petersen and his handler Maki Takehisa, who was also charged, Kees said.

“Many of these mothers describe their ordeal as being treated like property,” he said.

Petersen was barred by law from simply handing money over for the Marshallese babies. The federal indictment alleges that, instead, he wired money to Takehisa, who in turn distributed it to birth mothers  — more than $1 million in recent years.

Petersen lied to Arkansas judges who likely would have rejected the adoptions if they had known the facts, the indictment says. And he is alleged to have inflated the supposed costs, submitting court documents showing expenses for housing and food when, in fact, the Marshallese birth mothers were staying for free in the homes of Takehisa’s relatives.

Millions Collected In Adoption Fees

All three investigations appear to have different origins.

In Arkansas, Kees said, other attorneys saw what Petersen was doing and thought that “something wasn’t right.”

In Arizona, meanwhile, a state trooper was contacted by a friend who had talked to Petersen about adopting a child and was concerned about the legitimacy of what Petersen proposed.

The Utah investigation started when nurses and other workers at hospitals where Marshallese women gave birth started asking questions. Civil Beat interviewed several such workers for its stories on Petersen.

The Marshallese women all gave the same address, a house owned by Petersen in West Valley City, and were all accompanied by a Petersen handler identified in the Utah indictment as Hemrilla Saimon, apparently the woman who Civil Beat’s sources called Jauwe Simon.

One Marshallese birth mother told a social worker that she did not know the names of the couple who was adopting her child and that she “had nothing to do with the adoption paperwork.” Many of the women had little or no prenatal care before arriving at the hospital and were considered “high risk” by doctors and nurses.

The Utah investigator found more than 40 women who traveled from the Marshall Islands to do adoptions arranged by Petersen between December 2016 and August 2019, most of them contacted by an associate of Saimon after they became pregnant and offered $10,000 to place their babies in adoptions.

Over about two years, adoptive families wired $2.7 million into an account Petersen gave them. The adoptive couples, whom Petersen charged between $25,000 and $41,000, told the Utah investigator that the attorney misled them about various things, including the amount of prenatal care and that birth mothers were offered cash for their babies. The couples said if they had known about the COFA treaty’s prohibition regarding adoptions, they might not have gone through with them.

For more than a decade, lawyers were able to bring pregnant Micronesian women to the U.S. for illicit adoptions with relative impunity. 

One couple said they went to the West Valley City house and saw 15 or more pregnant women, many who appeared to be sleeping on mattresses on a bare floor in what looked like a “baby mill.”

In Arizona, Petersen and fixer Lynwood Jennet are also accused of signing up Marshallese women for state health care benefits even though they were not residents of the state, costing the taxpayers some $800,000 in the past several years.

In a press release, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said, “While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes. Petersen’s illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries — the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah.”

Authorities stressed that the couples who adopted the Marshallese children are not under investigation and that they need not worry that the adoptions will be invalidated.

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