Report: County Assessor Paul Petersen Runs 'Black Market' Adoption Agency

Paul Peterson's swearing-in ceremony.
Paul Peterson's swearing-in ceremony. Maricopa County Assessor's Office
Update, October 8, 2019:  The Arizona Attorney General's office has announced that it indicted Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen in connection with an adoption fraud scheme.  Our original story:

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen's adoption business practices may run afoul of an international treaty, according to a November 29 article published by Honolulu Civil Beat.

Petersen’s business focuses on babies with mothers from the Marshall Islands, according to the award-winning news site, which published the information as Part Two of a special report called "Black Market Babies." The Civil Beat began investigating the practice of adopting children from the Marshall Islands in 2017, "after connecting with a young Marshallese man whose adoption had, essentially, taken place in the Honolulu airport parking lot."

The trail led reporters John Hill and Emily Dugdale to Petersen, who they deemed "one of the most active Marshallese adoption lawyers." Petersen has adoption practices in Arizona, Arkansas, and Utah.

According to Civil Beat, he regularly arranges for pregnant Marshallese woman to come to the mainland United States, where he puts them up in a split-level house he owns in Utah. His business covers their room and board.

Petersen connects the pregnant women with mostly Mormon families looking to adopt, the site reports. Petersen himself is a Mormon who did missionary work in the Marshall Islands decades ago.

As Civil Beat states, a treaty called the Compact of Free Association — which gives the island territory the status of a sovereign nation — prohibits Marshallese women from traveling to the United States for the purpose of adopting out their babies without first getting a visa from the State Department. The agreement is intended to protect pregnant Marshallese women after a history of exploitation.

Matthew Long, an attorney representing Petersen in a phone interview with New Times, repeatedly insisted that Petersen’s business is a domestic adoption agency that follows state law, and which has withstood oversight by regulatory agencies.

"[Petersen] doesn’t engage in intercountry adoption,” Long said at least five times.

The attorney would not answer yes or no on whether Petersen arranges flights for Marshallese women.

Petersen could not be reached for comment. He was appointed assessor by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 2013 and won elections to keep his seat in 2014 and 2016.

Multiple women told Civil Beat that they were recruited to adopt out their babies by fixers hired by Petersen. One Marshallese woman said a relative of a Petersen associate “begged” her to accept a plane ticket from Petersen after she got pregnant in high school. Another birth mother said a fixer for Petersen coerced her into staying in an isolated house in Arkansas. When she fled the house with two friends, she said the fixer threatened to call the police and make them pay their airfare.

Petersen's lawyer declined to comment on the allegations of the women, calling them “uncorroborated” and “not credible."

Petersen has made the Marshall Islands a significant part of his practice for many years. In the mid-2000s, one case reached courts. An Arizona judge blocked an adoption after ruling that a fixer was improperly paid $2,000 by Petersen’s business for connecting a birth mother with a family. An appeals court reversed that decision in 2007.

In the 3-0 appellate opinion, the judges wrote that Petersen had arranged for a woman from the Marshall Islands to fly to Mesa, where she lived for a few weeks before having a baby. As the opinion states, the lower court "expressed concern with the legality of Petersen’s methods in setting up the adoption." The appellate judges did did not disagree with a lower court opinion that Petersen violated Marshall Islands laws and the treaty, but ultimately decided the adoption should go through because it's in the child's best interest.

Petersen's baby business apparently brings in big bucks. An Idaho woman who considered adopting from Petersen told Civil Beat she decided against after learning of an estimated fee of $35,000.

Petersen makes $76,000 a year as Maricopa County Assessor. Civil Beat reported that he and his wife, a real estate agent, own two properties in Mesa, a house in Pinetop, and the boarding home in Utah.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh