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Family Who Adopted Son Through Paul Petersen’s Agency Speaks Out

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A family who adopted a Marshallese son through a man now involved in an adoption scam is speaking out about their experience.

The family said they are shocked about the charges against Paul Petersen, the Maricopa County, Arizona, assessor and adoption attorney. Petersen has been indicted with charges alleging he made a living cheating adoption laws and tricking pregnant Marshallese women into giving their children up for adoption in the United States.

The Ogden family said they adopted their son through Petersen’s agency four years ago.

“We had been praying for it for a long time,” said the child’s adoptive mother, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her son’s identity, about the process to adopt a child.

“We had been saving for it, We had been doing everything we needed to be approved, to get our home study done, be approved by the state so that we could adopt,” said the mother about the lengthy vetting process including background checks they went through to become eligible for adoption.

She said she contacted Petersen after hearing about his practice and spoke with him about a month before he contacted them about the possibility of adopting a newborn in Arkansas.

“We were matched the same day he was born,” the adoptive mother said.

With short notice, the mother said she flew to Arkansas where her son was born and met his birth mother and her husband.

In total, she said she paid Petersen $29,000 of which she was told $10,000 would be given to the biological mother for prenatal care.

“We bonded and I got to know her and I love her and we’re still in touch,” the adoptive mother said.

She said her story is different from the accounts gathered by detectives in the case against Petersen in that the birthmother, though Marshallese, had lived in the states for 15 years and spoke English.

“The adoption we have is open and my son knows who she is,” the adoptive parent said.

While the mother was still processing the charges against Petersen, she was concerned about the impact it will have on children like her son and the stigma it may carry for the families that went through Petersen’s agency to adopt their children.

“That’s the hard thing, I don’t want people to ask him, oh you were trafficked, oh your parents bought you,” the adoptive parent said.

“They’re both victims on both sides of the issue here whether they were receiving or giving their child,” said Immigration and Family attorney Brian Tanner. Tanner has worked extensively with the Marshallese community in Utah and Hawaii.

Tanner said he witnessed similar cases during his time as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Hawaii in the early 2000s and he wasn’t surprised to hear about the charges against Petersen.

He also said he started receiving calls from Marshallese women and potential adoptive families concerned about Petersen’s practices several months ago.

According to Tanner, the Marshallese community has been historically vulnerable to unethical adoption scams where parents may not fully understand the concept of adoption as viewed in the United States.

“They might feel some pressure just culturally and the amount of the desire to please,” Tanner said of Marshallese people.

Tanner said the Marshallese community is especially vulnerable due in part to a culture of generosity in which it is unlikely they would say no to a request. This, combined with a high fertility rate and a sense that adoption is only temporary – not a permanent — exchange, and an immigration status that allows Marshallese citizens to travel freely to the United States made the Marshallese islands and attractive option for adoption agencies throughout the nineties and early 2000s.

For this reason, in 2004, an amendment to the Compact of Free Association between the Marshall Islands and the United States made it illegal for Marshallese women to travel to the United States and give up their children in adoption to curb the practice and protect Marshallese families from becoming prey to adoption scams.

“Just knowing about the compact restrictions on you can’t bring pregnant women into the United States for an adoption, it seems pretty clear that there was something very unethical, very wrong that was going on,” Tanner said.

Tanner said he finds it hard to believe that Petersen was not aware of these laws and may have worked to circumvent them by using his connection to the Marshallese community and position of trust as an attorney.

“Being an attorney I could see my position being viewed as one of authority, of being one that would put excessive amount of pressure on someone to want to do what I am asking them to do, and so it is very, very troubling if Mr. Petersen did that,” Tanner said.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office has established a hotline to assist anyone affected by Petersen’s offenses at 801-839-5640. Caseworkers with the Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah are in place and ready to help any victims of this scheme, according to the Utah Attorney General’s Office.