Rolson Price is still scanning Facebook for his photo. He has seen it from time to time, on the periphery of someone else’s photo, instantly recognizable.
But he never met her and admits he never will.
You still don’t know your daughter’s name.
Price is one of dozens of victims of an extraordinary and blatant human trafficking ring that has operated for years in the Marshall Islands archipelago and in three states of the United States of America. The plan involved pregnant women from the Marshall Islands who were lured to the United States and seduced, with offers of $ 10,000 and the promise of a new life in the United States, to give up their babies, who were later adopted by American couples. willing to pay four times that amount. for a boy.
Prosecutors believe that at least 70 babies were adopted this way – “sold” in a scathing court judgment – for up to $ 40,000 each.
Paul Petersen, a 45-year-old former Arizona county elected official, pleaded guilty to human trafficking, conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens and fraud in a United States federal court. He has been sentenced to six years in prison and faces more jail time on more charges.
But in the Marshall Islands, families have been irreparably damaged: fathers who will never know their children, children without mothers.
‘A bomb explodes inside your house’
“For years the United States used to drop real atomic bombs in our backyard,” a reporter in Majuro with knowledge of the plan told The Guardian, a reference to the massive 20th-century US nuclear testing regime that devastated the US environment. the Marshall Islands.
“But this, this is like a bomb exploding inside your house. In your family. It destroys everything. “
Price and his eight-year-old son Kyhon live in Uliga, part of the small and close-knit Ahmadiyya Muslim community of Marshall, outside the capital Majuro.
His is a difficult existence to dig up. The home is a one-room house with a concrete floor, lit by a single light bulb and powered by an intermittent supply of cold water. Kyhon eats most of his meals at the mosque, which feeds families who would otherwise go hungry.
Despite the hardships of his family’s life, four years ago Price was excited about the imminent birth of his second child. I was expecting a girl.
He was offered a short-term job on a nearby island building a boardwalk (three days of work in cash) and hopped on a boat to the nearby island of Kumit.
When he returned, his wife had left, leaving him with their young son. “To America,” his extended family told him. “She just left.”
His wife never returned. At first, she would send money and they would occasionally communicate, through mutual friends online, about what might happen to her family.
But the messages became less frequent and then stopped. The money dried up. Price resigns: he will never return.
“She got a passport and left. I got angry, I got depressed, but there was nothing I could do.
“She wanted the money. That’s why it was … because they offered him money.
“But they don’t think about who is left behind. Why would you do that to families? Why would you want to take my wife and baby? “
‘A baby selling company’
At a virtual sentencing hearing in a US district court in early December, the mastermind behind Marshall’s illegal adoption plan, Petersen, was sentenced to 74 months in prison and fined $ 100,000. As part of his plea agreement, he 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 possibility of more jail time and more fines.
He told the court that his intentions were good and regretted that he would miss raising his own four children while in prison.
“To someone [birth mother] who felt cheated, belittled, neglected, disrespected or even coerced, I say, ‘I’m sorry’ … I tried to make families happy, and by doing so I ruined mine. “
In an interview, Petersen’s attorney, Kurt M Altman, told The Guardian: “No one was mistreated. That has been the position of Mr. Petersen throughout, and that is confirmed in the tests ”.
But US District Court Judge Timothy Brooks criticized his conviction, calling Petersen’s adoption practice “a get-rich-quick scheme … hidden behind the brilliant guise of a humanitarian operation.”
“It subverted what should be a moment of joy for all in a baby sales company. We do not 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 plan it established: the smuggling of pregnant women and their unborn children in plain sight.
Looking for the poor and vulnerable
Peterson’s connection to the Marshall Islands dates back more than two decades.
In 1998, then just 23 years old, Petersen served a mission for the Church of Latter-day Saints in the archipelago. In two years, he quickly learned the language, developed a deep understanding of the Marshallese culture, its faults and pressure points, and made good contacts in the capital Majuro.
Upon his return to the United States, he created an adoption agency, seeking to take advantage of the close ties between the United States and the Marshalls.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands, a nation in the Pacific archipelago halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, can travel freely to the United States under a ‘pact of free association’ signed between the two nations in 1983.
After years of abuse of the system, in 2003, the pact was amended to specifically prohibit women from traveling for adoption purposes.
But court documents show that there was still a market for childless couples in the US seeking babies, who would pay Petersen up to $ 40,000 to “facilitate” their adoption, and for vulnerable women in the Marshall Islands who could be lure with promises of cash, and a new life in America.
Petersen’s website boasted that it could help couples adopt children “without the direct involvement of … an adoption agency or a state agency.”
Petersen’s accomplice, Marshall Islands woman Lynwood Jennet, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and robbery.
Jennet told investigators that for six to seven years working alongside Petersen, she focused on poor women and those with little education, some of whom, she said, worked in prostitution camps in the Marshall’s. She also said that she had previously given up two of her own babies using Petersen as her attorney.
Jennet said she would search for pregnant women in the Marshall Islands and befriend them with offers of help and money. He would organize identity documents and passports for the women, often in a matter of 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. . Houses were often overcrowded, with women sleeping on the floor, their newly acquired passports sometimes taken from them so they couldn’t leave.
Jennet would also help women illegally enroll in Medicaid, whereby the US government health care system would cover the cost of hospital deliveries. Once the baby was born, Petersen would charge American families up to $ 40,000 to “facilitate” the child’s adoption.
Birth mothers would be given “postpartum” money for a month or two, and a plane ticket back to the Marshalls or elsewhere in the United States. Few women returned to the islands. Birth mothers were paid between $ 7,300 and $ 10,800.
There is no indication that the adoptive parents were aware of the illegality of Petersen’s plan and US authorities have said there is no intention to invalidate or reverse any of the adoptions.
Prosecutors have alleged that Petersen engineered at least 70 illegal adoptions, the plan finances a luxurious lifestyle: a home in a gated community in Arizona, vacation properties, luxury cars.
Acting US Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas David Clay Fowlkes said there was no altruistic element in Petersen’s illegal adoption practice, describing it as “nothing more than a sophisticated plan to not just take advantage of the Marshallese community. , but also for scam prospective adoptive parents of large sums of money ”.
‘Path of destruction’
In the islands, Marshall’s attorney general Richard Hickson said Petersen, “left a trail of destruction behind him”.
“There are a lot of Marshallese women and children who are effectively stateless in the United States.”
Petersen “took advantage of vulnerable pregnant Marshallese women who were in an extremely stressful position … for his own benefit,” Hickson said. And it has devastated the families left behind.
In the densely populated Jenrok neighborhood of Majuro, eight-year-old Richard Lejka waits for his grandmother to come home from work. She will eat when she is home.
He has stopped waiting for the return of his father and mother. His mother became involved in Petersen’s adoption plan. He left three years ago. Her father soon followed her in an effort to encourage her to return to the Marshall Islands. Neither of us has returned yet.
In the care of her grandmother and another extended family, Lejka’s life has fallen into a kind of stagnation, an interrupted family life, a stagnant education, a place in the world deranged.
For months, his family says, Lejka told his friends “my father is taking me to the United States, I’m going to the United States, I’m going to the United States.”
But he stopped saying that now.
In nearby Uliga, Rolson Price knows there are dozens of other families like Richard’s and his own, irretrievably united, grieved by lives not lost but taken away. It oscillates between anger and resignation. Says he’s holding his wife and Petersen equally responsible.
“I think I blame them both… she made the decision to leave, but he came trying to take my baby from me. They need to stop destroying families, they need to stop selling babies. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism