Paul Petersen, Maricopa County Assessor in Arizona, is facing a 32-count indictment alleging conspiracy, theft, forgery, and fraudulent adoption practices – including the sale of a child. The lifelong Arizona Republican has brokered adoptions for 15 years as part of his law office services. Not that 32 counts in Arizona isn’t bad enough, Petersen is also in hot water with the state of Utah for housing at least 40 pregnant women smuggled from the Marshall Islands for US adoptions.
Petersen is a licensed adoption attorney in Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas – however, it appears that defrauding Arizona’s Medicaid, by falsely claiming the women were Arizona residents, prompted a look-see by local officials. And then there is the pact between the United States and the Marshall Islands, which prohibits Marshallese residents from traveling to the US for purposes of adoption.
Infants being placed in secure family homes where they are wanted and cherished seems like a good thing. What’s the problem, one might ask. There are several. As a statement from Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes describes:
“Petersen is alleged to have run an illegal adoption scheme where he recruited, transported, and offered payment to pregnant Marshallese women to give their babies up for adoption in the United States. While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes.”
Pipeline of Gold for One Civil Servant
Petersen’s brokering of Marshallese children first and foremost violates the US Compact of Free Association, an agreement with Micronesia, the Republic of Marshall Islands, and Palau. The compact basically permits citizens of these nations to travel freely in the US, or work and reside indefinitely without a citizenship requirement. That made it easy to move birth mothers from the islands and through the US to Utah, Arizona, and Arkansas – states where Petersen had support infrastructure.
It apparently mattered not that the compact explicitly states that women seeking adoption by US parents must not travel without a special visa. Petersen would have known the laws and treaties of the pact – but then again, $40,000 for each child might make less-than-reputable folks ignore the law.
Another part of the free money plan was to hijack the health benefits for Arizona’s low-income residents. The indictment against Petersen reads, “The scheme in this case fraudulently represented the pregnant women in question were residents of Arizona in order to obtain medical services by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System because without residency Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System services cannot be obtained.” Another oops for the county assessor. But again, there was relatively no upfront investment with a swift five-figure return – over decades.
What was promised to those women, many of whom had never been outside the Marshall Islands, to make the journey to Arizona, Utah, or Arkansas? They believed they would be a part of their child’s life.
Lost in Translation
“They don’t really understand the process,” an anonymous nurse with the LDS hospital in Salt Lake City, UT, told the online news outlet Honolulu Civil Beat. Several women are claiming they were promised an open adoption with their children being returned to the Islands at age 18.
One woman, Kookie Gideon, traveled to Arkansas to give birth and allow the adoption of her baby. Her newborn child was turned over to an American couple in an isolated, rural farm field. The Marshallese women do not understand the concept of closed adoptions and believe they will remain in close contact with their children as the kids grow up – a custom long held in the Islands. But the couple who adopted Gideon’s child immediately cut off all contact. And Gideon had no recourse.
Petersen was in the spotlight in 2017 as the adoption broker of record for children in Washington County, AR – a location that has, not coincidently, one of the largest Marshallese populations in the country. In fact, Family Court Judge Doug Martin’s math is telling: Nine out of ten adoptions in the area are of Marshallese children. He also notes the mothers are ill-informed about the US adoption process, saying “The look on their face is always surprise.”
And it’s no wonder, as Paul Petersen’s adoption guide for paying prospective parents warns that arranging for a translator at court hearings “is a nightmare.”
Salt Lake City hospital personnel noted several women whose adoptions were brokered by Petersen arrived suddenly at the hospital to give birth – a practice commonly referred to as “stop and drop” – and came with no identification or had falsified documents all with the same local address.
Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, sees nothing wrong with his client’s adoption process, passing any blame or potential criminal punishments down the line to regulatory agencies, bar associations, and judges – all of whom let the process slide. As Long observes, the measures in place to ensure a proper adoption process “found no issues and the adoptions that have been completed were all done with the approval of the courts.”
Perhaps Petersen will wriggle out of his troubles. But he appears to have an elitist attitude that says, “not so fast.” After a special election that earned him his $76,000 annual salary as a county assessor, Petersen was the target of some folks for driving a well-appointed, expensive Audi to work. He took the criticisms to heart – optics and all – and went out and purchased a new Jaguar. As he smugly told one Arizona news outlet, “I was told to get a new car, so I did, and now I’m getting flack for that, too.”
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