Rolson Price still scans Facebook for her picture. He’s seen her occasionally, at the periphery of someone else’s photo, instantly recognisable.
But he’s never met her, and concedes he never will.
He still doesn’t know his daughter’s name.
Price is one of dozens of victims of an extraordinary and brazen human trafficking ring, operating for years across the Marshall Islands archipelago and three states of the United States of America. The scheme involved pregnant Marshallese women being lured to the United States and enticed, with offers of $10,000 and the promise of a new life in America, to give up their babies, which were then adopted out to US couples willing to pay four times that amount for a child.
Prosecutors believe at least 70 babies were adopted this way – “sold” in a court’s scathing judgement – for up to $40,000 each.
Paul Petersen, a 45-year-old former elected county official in Arizona, pleaded guilty to human smuggling, conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens, and fraud in a US federal court. He has been sentenced to six years in prison, and faces further jail time still on more charges.
But across the Marshall Islands, families have been left irreparably damaged: fathers who will never know their children, children left without mothers.
‘A bomb going off inside your house’
“For years, the US used to drop actual atomic bombs in our backyard,” a reporter in Majuro with knowledge of the scheme told the Guardian, a reference to America’s massive 20th century nuclear testing regime which devastated the Marshallese environment.
“But this, this is like a bomb going off inside your house. In your family. It destroys everything.”
Price and his eight-year-old son Kyhon live in Uliga, part of the Marshall’s small and close-knit Muslim Ahmadiyya community, on the fringes of the low-slung capital Majuro.
Theirs is a hard-scrabble existence. Home is a concrete-floored single-roomed house, lit by a single bulb and fed by an intermittent cold water supply. Kyhon eats most of his meals at the mosque, which feeds families who would otherwise go hungry.
Despite the privations of his family’s life, four years ago Price was excited about the impending birth of his second child. He was expecting a girl.
Offered a short-term job on a nearby island building a seawall – three days’ work cash-in-hand – he jumped on a boat for nearby Kumit island.
When he returned his wife was gone, leaving him with their young son. “To America,” his extended family told him. “She just left.”
His wife never returned. In the beginning, she would send money back, and they communicated occasionally – through mutual friends online – about what might happen to their family.
But the messages became less frequent, then stopped. The money dried up. Price is resigned: she will never return.
“She got a passport and just left. I got mad, I got depressed, but there was nothing I could do.
“She wanted the money. That’s why she went… because they offered her money.
“But they don’t think about who is left behind. Why would you do that to families? Why would he want to take my wife and my baby?”
‘A baby-selling enterprise’
In a virtual sentencing hearing in a US district court in early December, the mastermind of the illegal Marshallese adoption scheme, Petersen, was sentenced to 74 months in prison, and fined $100,000. As part of his plea agreement, he has also agreed to pay nearly $680,000 in restitution and fees.
In January, he faces sentencing hearings in Utah and Arizona on state charges, with the potential for further jail time and more fines.
He told the court his intentions were good, and lamented he would miss raising his own four children while he was in prison.
“To any [birth mother] that felt misled, slighted, disregarded, disrespected or even coerced, I say, ‘I’m sorry’… I tried to make happy families, and in so doing ruined my own.”
In an interview, Petersen’s lawyer Kurt M Altman told the Guardian: “no-one was mistreated. That has been Mr Petersen’s position throughout, and that is borne out in the evidence”.
But US district court judge Timothy Brooks was excoriating in his condemnation, calling Petersen’s adoption practice “a get-rich-quick scheme … hidden behind the shiny veneer of a humanitarian operation”.
“He subverted what should be a joyous time for everyone into a baby-selling enterprise. We don’t sell babies. That is the public policy of the United States of America.”
Court documents seen by the Guardian detail the brazen nature of the adoption scheme he established: smuggling pregnant women and their unborn children in plain sight.
Seeking out the poor and the vulnerable
Peterson’s connection to the Marshall Islands dates back more than two decades.
In 1998, then just 23, Petersen served on a Church of the Latter Day Saints mission on the archipelago. In two years, he picked up the language quickly, developed a keen understanding of Marshallese culture, its faultlines and pressure points, and made good contacts in the capital Majuro.
Upon return to the US, he set up an adoption agency, seeking to leverage the close links between the US and the Marshalls.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands, an archipelago Pacific nation halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, can travel freely to America under a ‘compact of free association’ signed between the two nations in 1983.
After years of abuse of the system, in 2003, the compact was amended to specifically forbid women from traveling for the purposes of adoption.
But court filings show there was still a market of childless couples in the US seeking babies – who would pay up to $40,000 to Petersen to “facilitate” their adoption – and of vulnerable women in the Marshalls who could be enticed with promises of cash, and a new life in the US.
Petersen’s website boasted he could help couples adopt children “without the direct involvement of… an adoption agency or a state agency”.
Petersen’s co-conspirator, Marshallese woman Lynwood Jennet, has also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and theft.
Jennet told investigators that over six or seven years working alongside Petersen, she targeted poor women, and those with little education, some of whom, she said, worked in prostitution camps in the Marshalls. She also said she had previously given up two of her own babies for adoption using Petersen as her attorney.
Jennet said she would seek out pregnant women in the Marshall Islands – and befriend them with offers of assistance and money. She would organise identity documents and passports for the women – often within days – and travel with them to the US, placing them in one of a series of rented safe houses in Arizona, Utah, or Arkansas while they waited to give birth. The homes were often overcrowded, with women sleeping on floors, their newly acquired passports sometimes taken from them so they could not leave.
Jennet would also help the women unlawfully sign up for Medicaid, so the US government’s health care system would cover the cost of hospital births. Once the baby was born, Petersen would charge US families up to $40,000 to “facilitate” their adoption of the child.
Birth mothers would be given “postpartum” money for one or two months, and a plane ticket back to the Marshalls, or to somewhere else in the US. Few women ever returned to the islands. Birth mothers were paid between $7,300 and $10,800.
There is no suggestion adoptive parents were aware of the illegality of Petersen’s scheme and US authorities have said there is no intention to invalidate or reverse any of the adoptions.
Prosecutors have alleged Petersen engineered at least 70 illegal adoptions, the scheme funding a lavish lifestyle: a home in a gated community in Arizona, vacation properties, luxury cars.
The acting US attorney for the western district of Arkansas David Clay Fowlkes said there was no altruistic element to Petersen’s illegal adoption practice, describing it as “nothing more than a sophisticated scheme to not only take advantage of the Marshallese community, but also to swindle prospective adoptive parents out of large sums of money”.
‘Trail of destruction’
On the islands, the Marshalls’ attorney general Richard Hickson said Petersen, “left a trail of destruction behind him”.
“There’s a whole pile of Marshallese women and children who are effectively stateless in the United States.”
Petersen “preyed upon vulnerable pregnant Marshallese women who were in an extremely stressful position… for his own profit,” Hickson said. And he has devastated families left behind.
In Majuro’s densely populated Jenrok neighbourhood, eight-year old Richard Lejka waits for his grandmother to return home from work. He will eat when she’s home.
He’s given up on waiting for his mother and father to return. His mother was caught up in Petersen’s adoption scheme. She left three years ago. His father soon followed in an effort to encourage her to return to the Marshall Islands. Neither has yet come back.
In the care of his grandmother and other extended family, Lejka’s life has been thrown into a kind of stasis, a family life disrupted, an education stalled, a place in the world upended.
For months, his family say, Lejka told his friends “my father’s going to take me to the States, I’m going to America, I’m going to America”.
But he’s stopped saying that now.
In nearby Uliga, Rolson Price knows there are dozens of other families like Richard’s and like his, irreparably cleaved, grieving for lives not lost but taken from them. He swings between rage and resignation. He says he holds his wife and Petersen equally responsible.
“I think I blame them both … she made the choice to go, but he came trying to take my baby from me. They need to stop destroying families, they need to stop selling babies.”