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State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai
State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai
Gage Skidmore

Indigenous Lawmakers Want Probe of Petersen's Involvement in Native Adoption

Native American lawmakers called on law enforcement officials to widen an investigation of Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen following a Phoenix New Times report that the elected official helped plan the adoption of a Native baby in a manner that may have failed to comply with federal law.

Members of the Arizona Legislature's Indigenous Peoples Caucus also joined the growing chorus of officials calling on Petersen to resign.

Petersen already is facing possible prison time for an adoption scheme involving pregnant Marshallese women. New Times obtained several documents related to the Native adoption case, including a contract between one of Petersen's firms and a couple seeking to adopt the Native baby.

Adoption lawyers who reviewed language from the contract said the agreement does not appear to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was enacted in 1978 to prevent the abusive removals of Native children from their communities.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes, with whom the birth mother is likely affiliated, has expressed concerns about the way the adoption is being handled.

The Indian Child Welfare Act outlines preferences for where Native children are to be placed, starting with the child's extended family, followed by other members of the child's tribe and then members of other tribes.

But the contract from Bright Star Adoptions, for which Petersen served as general counsel and majority owner, erroneously states that the Indian Child Welfare Act "does not apply" in a case involving a birth mother either enrolled as a member or eligible for membership in the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation.

It's unclear whether Petersen was involved in other adoptions involving Native children.

Arizona State Senator Sally Ann Gonzales, speaking on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus, on October 21 called on Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate whether Petersen was involved in additional adoptions that could involve the Indian Child Welfare Act.

"There needs to be a follow-up investigation to see if there are more cases. There may be other adoption agencies who are doing the same thing that we don’t know about," said Gonzales, a Native legislator who grew up in the Yaqui community in Guadalupe. "We’re hoping the Attorney General's office will do that. We want more investigation."

A spokesperson for Brnovich's office, which is prosecuting Medicaid fraud charges against Petersen, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Indigenous Peoples Caucus is composed of all Democrats, including State Senators Gonzales, Jamescita Peshlakai, and Victoria Steele, as well as State Representatives Jennifer Jermaine, Myron Tsosie, and Arlando Teller.

While the Caucus represents a relatively small contingent of the Legislature, its words carry a lot of weight. In 2018, the AG's office opened a criminal probe into the destruction of native antiquities by the State Parks Department following a letter from the Indigenous Peoples Caucus.

Gonzales also said that the caucus plans to introduce legislation during the next legislative session intended to "strengthen protections for Arizona's Native children."

Six states have adopted their own laws intended to keep indigenous children in Native communities that go beyond the federal law. Arizona is not one of them.

Gonzales told New Times that she and her colleagues would look to write legislation that makes it a requirement for private adoption attorneys to notify the applicable tribe when seeking to place a baby that might be eligible for tribal membership.

While the Indian Child Welfare Act requires tribal notification in involuntary child placement cases, Indian law experts disagree on whether it's mandated in voluntary adoption cases. Some adoption attorneys say the privacy of the birth parents should outweigh the rights of tribes in cases of voluntary adoptions. Other attorneys say the Indian Child Welfare Act implicitly mandates communication with a tribe, even in voluntary adoption cases, to determine whether a child would be eligible for membership in a tribe in the first place.

Some states, such as Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Iowa, have enacted laws requiring adoption attorneys to give notice to tribes whenever they have reason to believe that a baby may be eligible for tribal enrollment.

According to the National Indian Law Library's Practical Guide to the Indian Child Welfare Act, such laws are intended to prevent scenarios in which tribes learn after an adoption takes place that the placement should have fallen under tribal jurisdiction.

"Providing notice to a tribe will also allow the tribe to identify if there are good tribal or family placements available for a child and will lessen the risk of a child being transferred to a new placement after an extended time in an initial placement, an event that can be difficult for all concerned," the guide states.

As part of a press release, other members of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus released their own statements on Petersen.

"We are deeply troubled by the revelations that Mr. Petersen at least attempted to facilitate what looks to be an illegal adoption of a Native American child outside of Indian Child Welfare Act requirements," said State Senator Peshlakai, a member of the Navajo Nation. "We urge all relevant federal, state and tribal governments to swiftly and thoroughly investigate whether there were any other Native adoptions handled improperly by Mr. Petersen and his Bright Star Adoption agency."

State Representative Arlando Teller, also a member of the Navajo Nation, said: “I demand Mr. Petersen’s resignation and that he be disbarred. As an attorney, he should be quite familiar with ICWA, and with no regard of this federal legislation his actions are both arrogant and brazen.”

Petersen was arrested earlier this month by state police following a months-long, multistate investigation into his practice of paying pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to travel to the United States for the purpose of placing their children with American families. Arizona Department of Public Safety officers found eight Marshallese women staying in a house owned by Petersen.

Petersen paid Marshallese women about $10,000 each to give birth in the United States and charged families around $35,000 per adoption, according to records and prosecutors.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich alleged that Petersen falsified insurance documents for the women to bilk state taxpayers out of $800,000.

The county assessor also faces more serious charges in Arkansas and Utah, including counts of human smuggling and sale of a child.

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