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Marshall Islands Adoption Issues Go Beyond Arizona Arrest

Maricopa County Sheriff's Office

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen is under arrest and facing calls to resign after allegedly running an illegal adoption ring involving women from the Marshall Islands, a remote atoll between Hawaii and Australia.

Prosecutors say he brought at least 40 women to the U-S to give birth and hand over their infants for arranged adoptions.

For years before the arrest, Petersen’s role in the adoption scheme was tracked by John Hill and others at the non-profit newsroom Honolulu Civil Beat. Hill spoke with KNAU’s Zac Ziegler about the investigation, and what their reporting found.

Zac Ziegler: “First off, Tell me about the Marshall Islands and how adoptions of children from their grew to where we are now

John Hill: “You know, it's funny. Nobody is really sure how it started happening. One thing is that the Marshall Islands, which is an independent nation, has a special treaty that a number of Pacific island nations have with the United States called the Compact of Free Association and that allows most citizens of COFA nations to travel to the mainland United States without a visa. So that may be part of it, but there's a lot of different factors. Nobody's really sure exactly how the Marshall Islands became such a hot spot, but they certainly did. 

ZZ: “So the Marshall Islands has few natural resources. They're remote and lacking in a strong economy. Does the promise of money and economic stability play a role in this?”

JH: “Definitely, many of the birthmothers we spoke to from the Marshall Islands really did want to give up their children in adoptions. They did want to come to the United States, although there were a lot of misunderstandings about what an adoption would mean here. 

ZZ: “How do adoptions differ in Marshallese culture than in American culture?”

JH: “In Marshallese culture, there's no concept really of adoption being a complete severing of your relationship with your child. There's a long tradition of informal child sharing, where the parents might need to have someone else take care of your children for a while for whatever reason, or they may just want their children to have different kinds of experiences. And then they come back to the birth parents, and it's never a complete severing of the relationship.”

ZZ: “What were women told would happen if they changed their mind about the adoption once the process had begun either before or after giving birth?”

JH: “In general, we have found cases in which the Marshallese birth mothers told us that they were threatened if they change their mind that they'd have to pay back all the money that they’d have to pay back their plane fare. We've also heard from birth mothers who say they were told that they would be arrested and put in jail for engaging in fraud if they change their minds.”

ZZ: “One of your stories refers to Paul Peterson as one of the most active adoption lawyers handling adoptions from the Marshall Islands. How did this connection happen? How did he get to this place?”

JH: “Well, Paul Peterson is Mormon and he did his mission work in the Marshall Islands. And he learned to speak Marshallese. And he came back to the United States, he was actually a college student in Arizona and there was an article in the Arizona Republic years ago actually --sort of a feature story--about Paul Peterson and his friend Matt Long who is now his lawyer. And they were recruited by an international adoption agency to work for them in the Marshall Islands because they were fluent in Marshallese. That's how I think he was introduced to the business, in essence.”

ZZ: “So is his story of getting involved in this adoption practice pretty standard? Is this how people get introduced or involved in this?”

JH: “I don't think so no I think Paul Peterson is kind of unusual in that regard an effect on his website he touted the fact that you know he spoke Marshallese and understood Marshallese culture.”

ZZ: “John Hill thank you very much for joining us today.”

JH: Happy to be here, thanks.”


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