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EXCLUSIVE: Pregnant Marshallese women speak out about Maricopa County Assessor's alleged adoption fraud scheme

Pregnant Marshallese woman
Posted at 4:37 PM, Oct 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-17 16:20:01-04

For the first time, we are hearing from some of the pregnant Marshallese women who are part of a far-reaching adoption fraud scheme allegedly run by Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen.

Seven Marshallese mothers and their multiple young children, crammed into two east valley apartments. They're pregnant and alone, caught in the middle of an international adoption scandal.

"After the incident took place they're wondering how are they going to be fed, and get all the other needs," said the women through a translator.

With the help of a local pastor who translated their words, the women expressed the abandonment they feel after Paul Petersen's promises amounted to lies.

"They were promised that it would be an open adoption, until they're children are 18, that their kids will come here and grow up in the United States and be able to provide for their families back home," said the women.Words that couldn't be further from the truth. As roaches crawl across the floor, the women talk about running out of food and money. Their thoughts constantly returning to their unborn children.

"They haven't received any medical assistance since last month," said the women.

"Do you worry about the children you’re currently carrying," asked the translator.

"Yes very much," they said.

We asked how they were approached regarding adopting out their children through Petersen.

"Someone from home, they were previously here and adopted their kids and they went and recruited them," said the women. "They were promised that they will get paid, they would be well taken care of, they will have their cars and all that."

We got a look at one of their rooms, a single mattress lays on the floor, blankets and makeshift pillows make up another bed nearby.

They tell us they've been in the U.S. for just over two months. At first receiving $1,000 each for those months but since Petersen's arrest, those funds have stopped.

"They need almost everything," said the women.

All seven are due to give birth in the next four months. Their phones, passports, and other documents seized during Petersen's arrest. They say they were never threatened by Petersen or his associates but at least three of the women have decided to keep their babies.

In regards to what is being done to help the women, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey's office released the following statement on the Wednesday night:

Where the state can be helpful, we have a commitment to provide assistance. With multiple agencies and jurisdictions involved, our focus is on ensuring these women have access to the care, resources and support they need.

Adult Protective Services is coordinating with local law enforcement to send a law enforcement team immediately tonight to conduct a health and wellness check of these women and anyone in the house. They will ensure the women have access to food and necessities. APS will follow up tomorrow. We are also working with local agencies and potential non-profits with the goal of finding more suitable housing.

A lawyer for Petersen, meanwhile, has said this week that his client has been miscast as a human smuggler.

Attorney Matt Long said Petersen cares deeply for the mothers from the Marshall Islands whom he connected with adoptive parents in the United States.

Prosecutors have said that Petersen paid the women up to $10,000 to come to the United States, where they were crammed into houses to wait to give birth and provide their babies for adoption.

Petersen faces charges in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas that include human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

FULL COVERAGE: Paul Petersen adoption fraud scheme

"This was not human trafficking," Long said. "That's going to be borne out by evidence. That's going to be borne out by the manner in which it will be demonstrated that Mr. Petersen dealt with the birth mothers and the adopted families."

A judge in Phoenix delayed Petersen's arraignment until after an Oct. 29 hearing in Arkansas, where he faces federal charges.

A judge in Utah on Tuesday declined to reduce his $3 million bail. The amount was based in part on $2.7 million that authorities say was deposited into an account for adoption fees over several years. Petersen's Utah attorney, Scott Williams, said much of that money has been spent.

Petersen is currently in federal custody.

There are nearly 30 pending adoptions in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah that were being handled by Petersen's company, according to court documents.

The women in Utah were "frightened and nervous" after Petersen was arrested, according to an affidavit filed by a special agent with the Utah attorney general's office. They didn't have money, cellphones or transportation, prosecutors said.

The agent also said Peterson and his associates would take passports from the Marshallese women while they were in the U.S., which gave him more control over them.

Petersen has been unfairly ping-ponged between state and federal custody and has been largely denied access to his lawyer, Long said. That has made it hard for Petersen to defend himself and for lawyers, mothers and adoptive families to understand the ramifications for pending adoptions, he said.

"I can't get access to him, other people can't get access to him for a sufficient amount of time in order to work through some of these issues," Long said.

Petersen, he said, helped his clients navigate the complicated emotions involved with adoption.

"That's been consistent in Mr. Petersen's life -- a care and concern for the Marshallese community," Long said.

Long said Petersen has no plans to resign from his elected position determining the value of properties for tax purposes.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and virtually all of Maricopa County's elected officials have said Petersen, a Republican, should quit because the charges make it difficult for him to serve.

Petersen and Long completed missions in the Marshall Islands with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they later worked in the islands on behalf of an international adoption agency. They continued working with the agency while both were in law school in Arizona.

Long said he's looking for another lawyer to represent Petersen because of their friendship and Long's own deep ties to the Marshallese community, noting he adopted a Marshallese child 20 years ago.