[SUNDAY FEATURE] Marshallese adoptions fuel a lucrative practice for some lawyers

U.S. and Marshall Islands officials say the law clearly bars women from traveling to America to give up babies for adoption. But some attorneys are still taking advantage of lax oversight and willing families.

By John Hill and Emily Dugdale | Civil Beat

NOVEMBER 28, 2018 — In 2017, an Arizona attorney named Paul Petersen bought a four-bedroom split-level house in a suburb of Salt Lake City and started using it as a hub for black market adoptions.

Petersen arranges for the plane tickets for pregnant women traveling some 5,000 miles from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to give up their children for adoption. He covers their expenses while they live in his house in West Valley City.

At any one time, 10 or more pregnant women live in the house, one of the residents told a Civil Beat reporter who visited recently.

A split-level house in West Valley City, Utah, owned by attorney Paul Petersen, where pregnant Marshallese women stay before adopting out their children./Emily Dugdale/Civil Beat

A treaty known as the Compact of Free Association bars Marshallese women intending to place a child for adoption from traveling to the U.S. without special permission. To control unregulated black market adoptions — which were rampant in the 1990s — the remote Pacific nation created a government agency to oversee international placements of children.

The treaty provision and the new law were put in place in the early 2000s to stop the exploitation of pregnant women who had little understanding of the consequences of adoption in the U.S. – that there would be no guarantee of continued contact with an adopted child, for instance, or expectation that a child would return at the age of 18.

Both the U.S. State Department and the Central Adoption Authority in the Marshall Islands confirmed to Civil Beat that pregnant women are not permitted to travel to the United States without visas if they intend to give up a child for adoption, even if they are going for some other purpose, such as a job or school.

Yet 20 years later, Petersen and a small number of other private adoption attorneys openly fly Marshallese women to the U.S. who plan to adopt out their children. They cover expenses such as airfare and room-and-board and match them with adoptive families, opening the door to the very abuses the law and treaty were designed to halt.

The lawyers, who get thousands of dollars per adoption, are undermining the official process and its safeguards. All along the way, authorities from immigration agents at the airport in the Marshallese capital in Majuro to family court judges in far-flung U.S. states fail to stop the flow of babies.


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