An Arizona lawyer has been charged in an illegal adoption scheme where he allegedly paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to give their babies up for adoption in the United States.
Paul Petersen, an elected county assessor for Maricopa County who is also an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona, was charged with 11 felony counts including human smuggling, sale of a child, communications fraud, and pattern of unlawful activity, the Utah Attorney General’s Office announced Tuesday.
Prosecutors allege that Petersen “recruited, transported, and offered payment” to more than 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific between Dec. 2016 and Aug. 2019. He then put their children up for adoption in the US, according to a Utah Attorney General’s Office press release obtained by PEOPLE.
According to authorities, the Compact of Free Association between the US and the Marshall Islands prohibits the Marshallese from travelling to the US for the purpose of adoption.
The women were housed in homes Petersen owned and leased, a Utah Attorney General’s Office arrest warrant affidavit obtained by PEOPLE states.
Petersen “knew or should have known the Marshallese women were not lawfully entitled to be in Utah for the purpose of adoption,” the affidavit states.
According to the affidavit, Petersen through his associates paid the women $10,000.
The case came to light in October 2017 when a state investigator received a tip from the Utah Attorney General’s Human Trafficking tip line.
The investigation uncovered that several Utah hospital staffers had noticed an influx of Marshallese women giving birth and then giving their child up for adoption.
“The Marshallese women all reported the same address in West Valley City as their residence,” the affidavit states.
The pregnant women were also all accompanied to the hospital by one particular woman, who resided at the same home.
According to the document, the pregnant women “had little to no prenatal care” before they went to the hospital to deliver: “One medical professional I interviewed described these pregnancies as ‘high risk’ because the hospitals had no information about the Marshallese women’s medical history and they did not receive prenatal care.”
During the investigation, authorities also obtained documentation of fees between Petersen and the adoptive parents.
“Petersen stated the fee to the adoptive parents was $35,000, with $25,000 paid up front and $10,000 after delivery of the baby,” the affidavit states.
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Authorities also spoke to several adoptive parents. One family told investigators that they went to visit a birth mother at the home she was staying in and saw “15 or more pregnant women living there.”
“Many appeared to be sleeping on mattresses on a bare floor,” the affidavit states. The adoptive mother described it as a “baby mill.”
At a press conference Tuesday, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said there was no plan to “unwind” adoptions that have already taken place.
Petersen was held on a $500,000 cash bond.
His next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 15.
Petersen also faces similar charges in Arizona and Arkansas. His lawyer declined to comment at this time.