Marshall Islands officials hail adoptions-case arrest

Marshall Islands officials welcomed recent indictments of an attorney accused of paying pregnant women to travel to the United States and give up their babies.

Investigators from the U.S. Justice Department's Western District of Arkansas went to the Marshall Islands in August in efforts to break up a baby-for-sale adoption scheme, the Marshallese government said in a news release issued Thursday.

"The Marshall Islands government is pleased with recent arrests and pending cases in U.S. courts of adoption lawyers and fixers who have, for a long time, solicited unwitting young pregnant women into giving away their children in return for cash or tickets to the U.S.," the statement says.

But there is much more work to do, it adds.

Private adoption attorney Paul D. Petersen of Mesa, Ariz., was arrested and charged with a total of 62 state and federal charges in three states: 32 state charges in Arizona, 11 in Utah and a 19-count federal indictment in Arkansas. His next court appearance is set for Oct. 29in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville.

Petersen was licensed to practice law in Arkansas, Utah and Arizona. His charges include communications fraud, human smuggling and the sale of a child.

Matthew Long of Scottsdale, Ariz., Petersen's defense attorney, said earlier this week Petersen cares deeply for the mothers from the Marshall Islands whom he connected with adoptive parents in the United States, and that he will be vindicated in court.

"This was not a human smuggling scheme. This was not human trafficking," Long told The Associated Press. "That's going to be borne out by evidence. That's going to be borne out by the manner in which it will be demonstrated that Mr. Petersen dealt with the birth mothers and the adopted families."

The Petersen firm's associates kept as many as a dozen pregnant Marshallese in the same house in Springdale and facilitated an estimated 30-35 adoptions a year, according to court records.

"Some of these women were even promised $10,000 to put up their unborn children for adoption," the statement from the Marshall Islands said. "For adoptive families, they were charged up to $35,000 per adoption according to court documents."

A treaty between the Marshall Islands and the United States, the Compact of Free Association, allows entry-free visas for Marshallese traveling to the United States. However, it bars entry for the sole purpose of adoption.

Petersen is accused of inflating the expenses incurred by the birth mothers to keep more of the adoptive parents' money, U.S. Attorney Duane "Dak" Kees has said. According to the charges in Arizona, Petersen committed fraud there by signing up the visiting birth mothers for Arizona Medicaid as permanent residents.

As of Thursday, Petersen was still held in Arizona in lieu of a $500,000 cash bond.

"Marshallese women have been induced by people like Petersen and his ilk for too long," said Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, quoted in the statement.

"Although I am happy that the government of the Marshall Islands, namely the Office of the Attorney General, was able to provide assistance [in this case], I believe there are other illegal adoption rings out there that must be stopped," the statement quotes Heine as saying.

Kees confirmed Oct. 9 that the investigation is ongoing.

The Marshallese government on the islands has begun taking a more protective stance.

In March, Marshall Islands officials charged a Springdale man, Justin Aine, with human trafficking, according to the Marshall Islands Journal. Kees said last week that Aine's case and Petersen's are linked, but declined to comment on how, and whether the Marshallese government will file any charges in the Petersen case.

Aine, 46, was charged by the assistant attorney general with one count each of trafficking in person, unlawful solicitation and monetary inducement, according to a report in the Journal.

Aine is accused of recruiting Susan Koraja by giving her $120 and the promise of $10,000 in exchange for her giving up her 1-month-old for adoption when they reached the United States, according to the newspaper. Charged along with Aine were Aiti "Hatty" Anidrep, 49, and Sally Abon, 53.

Aine promised Koraja he would help her family move to the United States if she gave up her child for adoption, according to the Journal.

Peterson is being sued in Arkansas by 13 adoptive parents who were expecting a child by the end of this year. In Arkansas, all pending adoptions statewide were taken over by Washington County Circuit Court in an emergency hearing Oct. 11. Petersen represented the birth mothers in the adoptions. All such cases were taken from his law firm and assigned to an attorney ad litem, or children's attorney.

Federal agencies involved in the multistate investigation included the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, according to a Justice Department statement of Oct. 9.

"I would like to thank relevant government officials for their help, and Civil Beat for its persistence in keeping this crucial issue on the forefront," the Marshall Islands president added in the statement.

Civil Beat is a Honolulu-based nonprofit group active in the adoption trafficking issue. Civil Beat has been credited by Marshallese advocates such as Melisa Laelan of Springdale with bringing attention to the issue.

"From Aug. 13-16, representatives from the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney General's Office, Western District of Arkansas, and from the Utah Attorney-General's Office were in Majuro to talk to Marshallese victims and witnesses of Petersen's scheme," the statement says. Majuro is the Marshallese capital.

"The RMI [Republic of the Marshall Islands] Office of the Attorney-General and the Marshall Islands Police Department assisted them in this regard," the statement says.

The Marshall Islands' Adoptions Act of 2002 only allows international adoptions if those adoptions are granted by the Republic of the Marshall Islands High Court, the statement says. The court has "original and exclusive jurisdiction to grant adoption of Marshallese children," the statement says.

Metro on 10/19/2019