An Arizona lawmaker ran an fraudulent adoption scheme that offered thousands of dollars to pregnant women to lure them from a Pacific Island nation to the United States, where they were crammed into houses waiting to give birth, often with little or no prenatal care, in what prosecutors called a human smuggling case.
In Utah, Arizona, and Arkansas, Paul Petersen, the assessor of Arizona’s most populous district, was charged with multiple counts involving human smuggling, child abuse, bribery, forgery, and money laundering conspiracy.
The charges span three years, including nearly 75 adoptions. Police discovered eight pregnant women from the Marshall Islands while raiding his property outside of Phoenix, and several more were waiting to give birth in Utah, officials said.
“The commoditization of children is simply evil,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes.
Together with the birth mothers, the adoptive parents are considered victims, and no completed adoptions will be undone, officials said.
During a Tuesday court hearing in Phoenix, Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, defended the actions of his client as “proper business practices” and said they disagreed with the charges.
Petersen served the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a two-year mission in the Marshall Islands, Reyes said. According to a 2013 Phoenix Business Journal story, he was later recruited by an international adoption agency while in law school due to his fluency in Marshallese.
Prosecutors said Petersen used associates there to persuade pregnant women to give up their babies for adoption by giving many of them $10,000 each. According to court records, Petersen would pay for the woman moving to the United States days or months before giving birth and living in a home he owned until the baby was delivered.
The expecting mothers were often crowded in the homes, with Petersen working Marshallese women assisting with items like translation, housing, legal documents, and Medicaid benefit applications, prosecutors said.
This summer, Petersen sold the house as complaints mounted from neighbors in the Salt Lake City suburban working-class area, new owner Alanna Mabey said.
She was advised that it was used as a rental, and she had found trash like dirty diapers in the bushes after she bought it, she said.
Petersen charged $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption to families and in less than two years, according to court documents, it brought about $2.7 million into a bank account for adoption fees.
The Utah probe began after police received a call in October 2017 to a human trafficking tip line. Staff at several hospitals in the area of Salt Lake City will eventually record an “influx” of Marshall Island women giving birth and placing their babies up for adoption, frequently accompanied by the same woman.
The scheme defrauded Arizona’s $800,000 Medicaid system because, Arizona prosecutors said, the women had no intention of staying in the state when they applied.
Marshallese nationals may enter the United States and operate without a visa under a compact between the United States and the Marshall Islands Republic unless they fly for adoption purposes, authorities said.
In the past, Petersen encountered problems in his adoption practices. A juvenile court judge in Arizona in 2016 refused a couple’s application to adopt a child born to a Marshallese woman because he believed Petersen’s plan would violate the law of that state. An appeals court reversed the decision, saying there was no need for Marshallese approval.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said that adoptive parents who had been through Petersen’s agency had nothing to worry about.
“No one’s going to go back and redo adoptions or any of that kind of stuff,” Brnovich said.