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Adoption Attorney Indicted for Human Trafficking

An elected official and adoption attorney in Maricopa County, Arizona, was arrested earlier this week on charges of adoption fraud, conspiracy and forgery. Paul Petersen was a licensed adoption lawyer in Arizona and Utah, and faces charges in both states. He also faces adoption fraud charges in Arkansas.

Petersen is alleged to have brought more than 40 financially struggling pregnant women to the U.S. from the Marshall Islands, and then paid them $10,000 in exchange for their babies. He would claim the women were local residents so that they could receive their medical services through the state’s Medicaid system — which, according to the Arizona Attorney General, cost state taxpayers more than $800,000.

Adoptive parents paid Petersen $25,000 upfront and then an additional $10,000 once the baby was born. The families allege that they were told the Marshallese women had received prenatal care (they did not) and that Petersen had not told them about any laws regarding the adoption of Marshallese babies.

Social workers finally caught wind of the human trafficking ring when one of the Marshallese women arrived at a Utah hospital to give birth. She had adoption paperwork from Petersen’s office, but when asked, she told the social worker that she didn’t know the names of the adoptive parents and that she was being paid for the adoption.

Alarmingly, the Honolulu Civil Beat released a report in 2018 stating that the Marshall Islands had the highest adoption rate per capita in the world in 1999. At one point, the Compact of Free Association even forbid people from the Marshall Islands from traveling to the U.S. just for adoption, and it was amended in 2003.

Petersen had a couple accomplices who have also been arrested. A member of the Arizona Republican Party, he was first elected to the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office in 2014 and was reelected in 2016. He’s a father of four, has been in the adoption business for almost fifteen years, and first began human trafficking via the Marshall Islands in 2005.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Human Traffickers and Responsible Adoption Professionals?

Paul Petersen was a licensed and active adoption attorney, and his clients assumed everything was above board. This is a frightening story for anyone in the adoption community.

With recent stories in the news that put the spotlight on trusted and legitimately licensed professionals who ultimately turn out to be engaging in the illegal and unethical “placement” of children, it’s fair to ask: Who can you trust? How do you know if your adoption is legal and ethical, or if the professional you’re working with is selling a human being?

Hopeful adoptive parents have a responsibility to birth parents and their children to carefully research their adoption professional. This will take some time and effort on your part, but it’s important. Here are some tips to help you when you’re looking for an adoption professional:

  • Know how various adoption professionals are regulated, and make sure that your chosen professional is up to the correct standards.
  • Understand the laws that protect prospective birth parents, understand why they’re important, and then make sure your professional is adhering to those laws.
  • Remember that if an expectant parent has not been fully informed about the adoption process or their options, if they have been offered things in exchange for their child, if they feel pressured, or if they have not properly consented to the adoption, it’s neither legal nor ethical!
  • Finances in adoption are carefully regulated, because money can never be directly given to the expectant parents in exchange for their child or consent to adoption. Responsible professionals may help birth families with bills, medical care or other relevant needs, but this must all be cleared by a judge.
  • Generally speaking, the more states a professional is licensed in, the more carefully they’re watched and regulated. This is why many people prefer working with national adoption agencies. Increased accountability and transparency means safety in a potential professional.
  • Talk to adoptive parents who have worked with that professional, yes — but also see if you can hear from birth parents that placed through them, and make sure that they were equally supported in the process.

It was thanks to the instincts of social workers and hospital staff that Petersen was caught, so remember that if something feels “off” when you’re talking to a potential adoption professional, you should listen to that gut feeling.