Lawyer ‘preyed on vulnerable women’ - Marshall Islands AG

1:47 pm on 29 June 2020

Multiple guilty pleas by an American lawyer to illegal baby adoption-related criminal charges over the past week in the United States were hailed by the Marshall Islands attorney general as an example of results achieved through international law enforcement cooperation.

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Marshall Islands Attorney General Richard Hickson recognised US and Marshall Islands law enforcement officials as American attorney Paul Petersen pleaded guilty to a variety of charges in the US states of Utah, Arizona and Arkansas for an illegal baby adoption operation he operated for three years.

The guilty pleas resulted from "cooperation across international borders that show an incredible level of commitment," said Mr Hickson.

Early last week, Petersen pleaded guilty in Arizona to fraud charges for submitting false applications to the Arizona Medicaid system for pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to receive state-funded health coverage. Later in the week, he pleaded guilty in a Utah court to three counts of transporting pregnant women from the Marshall Islands for a commercial purpose.

In addition, he pleaded guilty to one count of fraud for not informing American adoptive parents that he was violating laws when he charged them up to $40,000 for Marshallese babies.

In Arkansas, Petersen pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for private financial gain.

Petersen was based in Arizona, where he was an elected county official for six years prior to his resignation in January after the three-state charges were filed.

The Marshall Islands Attorney General's office and national law enforcement officials, as well as the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington, DC and its consulate in Arkansas played an important role in working with state attorneys general from Utah and Arizona to put together the case against Petersen, Mr Hickson said.

Under a treaty between the Marshall Islands and the US known as a Compact of Free Association, Marshall Islanders have visa-free access to the US to live, work and study.

The agreement, however, specifically banned travel to the US for the purpose of adoption.

Nevertheless, adoptions of Marshallese babies in the US had skyrocketed in recent years as Petersen and other American adoption attorneys took advantage of the visa-free entry provision to bring pregnant Marshallese women to the US to give birth and provide their babies for adoption to American families.

"Mr. Petersen preyed upon vulnerable pregnant Marshallese women who were in an extremely stressful position and limited by both a language barrier and legal sophistication for his own profit," said Mr Hickson.

"His legacy is a group of over 40 vulnerable female victims and their babies who are stuck in a foreign country without family support and no ability to return to their homeland."

Mr Hickson pointed out the Marshall Islands "has a well developed and robust adoption process and court system that facilitates international adoptions. The process involves home studies of both adoptive and birth families.

"Court proceedings and all consent documentation is processed in both Marshallese and English and the court considers the best interest of the child at all times."

High Court Building in Majuro

High Court Building in Majuro Photo: Hilary Hosia

But, said Mr Hickson, "Mr. Petersen sought to avoid this system by facilitating the illegal trafficking of young pregnant Marshallese women to the United States."

Mr Hickson said the US and the Marshall Islands "share a strong commitment to the rule of law and a fair and strong judicial system. This is a good example of the cooperation of law enforcement agencies when the crime is committed across international boarders."

Mr Hickson added that the successful prosecution of Petersen served as a warning to anybody that contemplated involvement in people smuggling or adoption fraud.

"It is illegal and if caught the perpetrator will be severely dealt with by authorities in either or both of our countries," he said.