The stolen climate crisis babies: US politician jailed for selling children of mothers desperate to escape environmental catastrophe

The Marshall Islands sit barely six feet above sea level in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and its people are among the most vulnerable in the world to the complex consequences of climate change, writes Louise Boyle 

Thursday 10 December 2020 17:03 GMT
Two children look at the flooding in a house on the Marshall Islands in 2014. The low-lying Pacific nation is among one of the most vulnerable to sea-level rise from climate change 
Two children look at the flooding in a house on the Marshall Islands in 2014. The low-lying Pacific nation is among one of the most vulnerable to sea-level rise from climate change  (AFP via Getty Images)

A former politician has been sentenced to six years for running an illegal adoption racket which took advantage of impoverished women from the Marshall Islands, a low-lying nation in the Pacific Ocean, where more and more citizens are being forced to flee because of the climate crisis.

Paul Petersen, a onetime Republican county assessor who was also an adoption attorney, illegally paid women to come to the US to give up their babies to Americans. Petersen had at least 70 adoptions cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas over three years.

Petersen “manipulated birth mothers into consenting to adoptions they did not fully understand,” said First Assistant United States Attorney Fowlkes of the Western District of Arkansas.

Judge Timothy Brooks, who imposed the sentence from Fayetteville, Arkansas on Tuesday, said that Petersen abused his position as an attorney by misleading or instructing others to lie to courts in adoptions that wouldn’t have been approved had the truth been told to them.

The judge said Petersen turned what should be joyous adoption occasions into “a baby-selling enterprise.”

The Marshall Islands were formerly used as a nuclear bomb testing site by the US during the Cold War arms race and since, islanders have had high rates of cancer and birth defects.

The islands gained independence from the US in 1986 but a  “relationship of free association” exists between the countries, meaning that eligible Marshallese may work, live, and study in America without a visa. However, Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the US for adoption purposes since 2003.

Earlier in his life, Petersen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints, had been a Mormon missionary in the Marshall Islands, where he became fluent in the Marshallese language.

The former public official had claimed that he carried out hundreds of legal adoptions after he discovered a niche locating homes for vulnerable children from the Marshall Islands and helping needy mothers who wanted a more stable family life for their children.

But Petersen’s crimes illustrate a worrying nexus between populations in some of the poorest regions of the world and their vulnerabilities to exploitation on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands sits barely six feet above sea level in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, several thousands miles in each direction from some of its nearest neighbors like Hawaii, Papua New Guinea and Japan.

A recent study from the University of Hawaii estimated that the nation of around 55,000 people could be underwater as soon as 2080.

An unseasonal cyclone swept through the islands in 2015 tearing off roofs, cutting power for half the 25,000 people living in the capital Majuro, and rushing ships ashore.

Freshwater is persistently under threat and only flows for 12 hours on a regular week, HuffPost reported in 2015. Without fresh water, dehydration, malnutrition and diseases can follow quickly behind.

In 2018, the Marshall Islands were the first country to submit updated “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) - countries' commitments under the Paris Accord to reduce emissions -  two years ahead of schedule for the COP26 climate talks (now postponed until 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic). 

The Marshall Islands promised to reduce emissions to 58 per cent below 2010 levels by 2035, and pledged to reach net-zero by 2050.

The Marshall Islands are adapting - raising sections of Majuro, improving freshwater catchment and slowing erosion by restoring coral reefs that protect the coastlines - but they have repeatedly pleaded with the rest of the world to help by raising their own climate ambitions.

Earlier this year President David Kabua, warned that his country risks being swept away by rising seas and urged other nations at the UN General Assembly to act, noting that “small island and atoll nations like mine do not have time for paper promises”.

But as beating back the rising tides becomes more difficult, many see no option but to leave if an opportunity arises.

Melisa Laelan, the founder and head of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, told The New Yorker earlier this year that as climate change worsens, "the numbers have been getting larger each year” of people leaving the islands. 

Many Marshallese, some 12-15,000 people, have ended up in the incongruous destination of Springdale in the northwest corner of Arkansas. 

The community credit a man called John Moody, who left the islands on a scholarship to study at an Oklahoma college and moved to Springdale in the early 1980s to work at Tyson Foods, one of many poultry-processing plants in the town. Mr Moody sent back word that jobs were available and thousands of fellow Marshallese followed in his footsteps. However pay hovers around minimum wage meaning that those who arrive often struggle to make ends meet.

There is also a high birth rate among Marshallese women and rare use of birth control, a piece earlier this year in The New Yorker  noted. Additionally, there is a chasm when it comes to how adoption is understood in the Marshall Islands compared to the US. On the islands, adoption is common in families and children live between households, maintaining close relationships with their birth parents.

As The New Yorker, along with an earlier 2015 article in The New Republic reported, a maelstrom of cultural differences, language barriers and, in some cases, predatory behavior by lawyers and intermediaries, has meant that Marshallese women have given babies up for adoption without appearing to fully grasp that they will never see their children again.

Shelma Lamy was a 20-year-old single mother to a young daughter when she was flown to the US at seven months’ pregnant by Petersen in 2015 and given $1,500 a month for expenses. Immediately after she gave birth, her baby boy was adopted by a white couple from Utah. Ms Lamy had signed the adoption paperwork relying on a Marshallese interpreter provided by Petersen’s agency. 

Ms Lamy went on to have two more babies which were adopted through Petersen’s agency.

“I was told that they will come back to me when they turn eighteen. When they finish school, the adoptive parents will tell the children about me, and eventually they will come back,”  she told The New Yorker, partly with acceptance that sadly this ultimately may not happen. 

“The adoption was the only way I could get here,” another heavily-pregnant Marshallese woman in the US told the magazine.

Arkansas law allows for closed adoptions, which means “there is no interaction between the birth parents and the adoptive parents. There is usually no identifying information shared between either side".

Migration and displacement due to climate-driven events - droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires - will likely be a hallmark of the coming decades, as some of impacts of global heating are already locked in.

“The average global temperature in 2020 is set to be about 1.2C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level. There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5C by 2024,” said the World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas on Wednesday following the release of its annual report which concluded that this year will be among the three hottest ever.

In 2018, The World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.

How to protect millions of vulnerable people from schemes crafted by criminals like Petersen is a mounting challenge.

The Arkansas judge who sentenced Petersen described his adoption practice as a “criminal livelihood”, adding that he also ripped off taxpayers at the same time he was elected to serve them.

Brooks rejected Petersen’s claims that he initially thought he was acting within the bounds of the law, but later realized what he was doing was illegal.

“You knew that lying and making these false statements to immigration officials and state courts was wrong,” said Brooks, who gave Petersen two years longer in prison than sentencing guidelines recommended.

Petersen was sentenced in Arkansas to six years in federal prison, the first of three punishments he’ll face.

Appearing by videoconference, Petersen told the judge that his actions in the Arkansas case weren’t indicative of who he is as a person and offered an apology to any birth mothers who felt disrespected by his treatment of them.

Petersen said he was horrified to learn that subordinates he did not name during the hearing had mistreated birth mothers, though he claimed he didn’t know about it at the time and did not condone it.

“I take responsibility for my lack of oversight,” Petersen said.

Petersen, who earlier pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit human smuggling in Arkansas, faces sentencing next month for convictions in Utah and Arizona.

Federal prosecutors have said the former assessor — responsible for determining property values in the county that encompasses Phoenix — defrauded state courts, violated an international adoption compact and took advantage of mothers and adoptive families for his own profit. 

The money Petersen made from the adoption scheme helped pay for his lavish lifestyle, including expensive trips, luxury cars and multiple residences, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said the passports of some birth mothers were taken away to prevent them from leaving the United States and that they were threatened with arrest if they tried to back out of adoptions. Petersen’s attorneys vigorously disputed that their client played any role in keeping some of the mothers’ passports, much less condoned it.

He is scheduled to be sentenced on 22 January in Phoenix for submitting false applications to Arizona’s Medicaid system so the mothers could receive state-funded health coverage — even though he knew they didn’t live in the state — and for providing documents to a county juvenile court that contained false information.

Petersen has said he has since paid back $670,000 in health care costs to the state of more than $800,000 that prosecutors cited in his indictment.

His sentencing in Utah on human smuggling and other convictions is set for 20 January.

He quit as Maricopa County’s assessor in January amid pressure from other county officials to resign.

Petersen in a letter to the Arkansas judge several ago said he is now ashamed, as a fiscal conservative, for imposing the pregnancy labor and delivery costs on Arizona taxpayers.

Some families whose adoptions were handled by Petersen wrote letters to the judge in support of the former assessor.

AP contributed to this report

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