How an adoption racket in Arkansas offered a way off the Marshall Islands.
In the summer of 2015, Shelma Lamy and her infant daughter, Neslina, got on a plane in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, and flew to northwest Arkansas.
Life in the islands had been difficult.
While Lamy was growing up, her parents worked nonstop—her father was a carpenter but also drove a taxi; her mother was a cook in a restaurant
—so she spent much of her time helping with chores around the house, cooking and cleaning, and watching the smaller children, including a brother who was
In the eighth grade, she stopped going to school, like many other kids her age; as she got older, it was hard to find work.
The unemployment rate in the Marshall Islands is nearly forty per cent, and most of the available jobs for someone with little education are men’s jobs,
such as construction, Lamy said—“and they don’t always bring enough money to support the whole household.”
Often, one household, as was Lamy’s case, includes three or four families living together.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands, situated between Hawaii and the Philippines, includes twenty-nine widely dispersed coral atolls and five volcanic islands,
spread across seven hundred and fifty thousand square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
At the end of the Second World War, the United States took control of the Marshall Islands from Japan and quickly turned the region into a nuclear-weapons test site.
Over the next decade or so, the U.S. military dropped sixty-seven atomic bombs in the islands, primarily around and on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls,
severely contaminating the region with plutonium and other particles of radioactive fallout.
There have since been high rates of thyroid cancer and birth defects, including congenital cataracts.
Lamy was born with a cataract in one eye, which severely restricts her vision, though it is impossible to know with certainty whether radiation exposure was the cause.
Her daughter was born with the same condition.
The islands, which, on average, are six and a half feet above sea level, now face another existential threat:
rising seas, shifting weather patterns, and high temperatures associated with climate change.
High-tide flooding is a frequent occurrence, even in the most developed areas of Majuro, where boulders and land fill have been deployed to protect infrastructure.
In 2015, an unseasonal typhoon left Majuro Atoll “like a war zone,” as one Marshallese official put it.
In 2016, the Marshall Islands suffered a drought so severe that water was rationed to residents for a limit of four hours per week.
Coral reefs and the fish they sustain are dying, and extended periods of dangerous warming in the water creates fish-killing algae blooms, as well.
In the first week of December, fifteen-foot waves flooded Majuro, washing away several homes and businesses, while the country’s two hospitals were at capacity due to
the largest recorded outbreak of dengue fever.
That same week, Hilda Heine, who was the President of the Marshall Islands until January, spoke by video feed to world leaders gathered for the United Nations
climate talks in Madrid.
The Marshall Islands are “facing death row,” she said.
Rich nations’ failure to commit to rapid, and much more ambitious, emissions cuts, she pleaded, was the equivalent of “passing sentence on our future,
forcing our country to die.”
While migration from the islands to the United States has been increasing, thanks largely to remittances from family members who are already here,
much of the population that wants to migrate cannot afford a plane ticket.
When Lamy got pregnant with Neslina, at the age of nineteen, she was overjoyed, but quickly realized that she would be raising her on her own,
with no support from Neslina’s father.
When she got pregnant a second time, a year later, she was scared.
She started speaking with her relatives to see if there was someone else who might help.
Adoption between relatives and in-laws is common throughout the Marshall Islands, and children often live freely between households—raised, in fact, by a village.
According to one study, as many as twenty-five per cent of all Marshallese children are adopted.
But most birth parents are still able to see their children regularly and maintain relationships with them into adulthood.
Lamy, at first, had such an arrangement in mind, and yet none of her relatives were in a position to raise another child.
Then one of her uncles told her that there might be another option.
An acquaintance knew an American attorney named Paul Petersen, who had been a Mormon missionary in the Marshall Islands years ago and now ran an
adoption agency in the United States.
If Lamy was interested, Petersen would fly her and her daughter to Arkansas—where some of her relatives had settled a few years prior
—and give her money throughout the course of her pregnancy to pay for rent, food, clothes, medical bills, and other expenses.
An American couple would then adopt her baby after she gave birth.
Lamy wondered whether she would have a say in who the adoptive parents would be.
Her uncle did not know—that would have to be sorted out once she arrived in Arkansas.
In any case, adoption in exchange for a ticket to the United States seemed like the best choice, almost too good to be true.
A month later, an aunt met her at the airport and gave her a ride to her apartment in the town of Springdale, an old agricultural outpost with around eighty thousand
residents and home to the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods.
Lamy was twenty years old and seven months pregnant.
“I couldn’t believe I was really living in America,” she told me.
“I felt like I had won the lottery.”
In Majuro, everyone has heard of Arkansas, and virtually everyone knows someone who lives there.
When the Marshall Islands gained full independence from U.S. administration, in 1986, the country entered into an agreement called the
Compact of Free Association with the U.S., which allows Marshallese citizens to live and work in the United States freely, without a visa.
The U.S. maintains a missile-test site on Kwajalein Atoll, and military interests—as opposed to concern about the atomic damage that had already been done
on the islands—were at the center of American negotiations.
The portal to Arkansas began when a Marshallese man named John Moody moved to the United States and eventually settled in Springdale for a job at one of Tyson’s
As word spread that jobs were plentiful—George’s, Inc., Cargill, and Butterball also have poultry-processing plants in the area—relatives followed.
In 2008, a Marshallese consulate opened just off of Springdale’s main street.
As climate change has intensified over the past decade, “the numbers have been getting larger each year,” Melisa Laelan, the founder and head of the
Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, told me.
Laelan is a Marshallese princess and grew up in Majuro.
When she was seventeen, she joined the U.S. military and served for ten years, including stints in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
She eventually settled in northwest Arkansas in the two-thousands and got a job as a court translator.
In 2011, she founded the organization to support Marshallese citizens, a third of whom now live in the United States.
The population in the islands is slightly more than fifty thousand.
Although thousands of Marshallese migrants live in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, and other states,
the concentration in the U.S. is greatest in northwest Arkansas, where population estimates hover between twelve and fifteen thousand.
In light of the threat that climate change poses to the Marshall Islands, Laelan sees it as her mission to continue building a social infrastructure so that islanders in
Arkansas can thrive.
“We gotta prepare our community for the future,” Laelan said.
“This is the Springdale Atoll.
We are surrounded by Marshallese.”
I met Lamy’s daughter, Neslina, who is now five, before I met Lamy.
She was running after an Aussiedoodle in the office of an adoption agency called Shared Beginnings.
When she saw me, although we hadn’t been introduced, she smiled and hugged my legs; this is, I later learned, her standard greeting.
The temperature was in the forties outside, but Neslina, like many Marshallese migrants in Arkansas, was still dressed for the islands,
in a floral short-sleeved dress and rainbow-colored flip-flops.
Lamy, too, wore a floral dress, bright green, with a red-and-black plaid flannel pullover on top—Pacific islands meets the Ozarks.
She greeted me with a shy but giant smile.
We sat down with her cousin, Bielly Pation, in Shared Beginnings’ family-meeting room, which was furnished with purple pillows and curtains, a giant stuffed llama,
and signs that read “Love” and “Blessed.”
As Neslina sat on the floor, rummaging through a box of toys, Lamy, with Pation providing interpretation, told me the rest of her story.
A Marshallese woman in Arkansas named Maki Takehisa, who worked for Paul Petersen’s adoption agency, gave her a thousand dollars in cash at the beginning of each
month, then another five hundred halfway through, providing enough money for her and her daughter to live comfortably during her pregnancy.
As her due date approached, she met with another woman from the agency to sign adoption paperwork, relying on Takehisa for interpretation.
As it turned out, she would not have any say in who the adoptive parents would be, which seemed strange.
But when she spoke, by phone, to the couple the agency had selected (again, with Takehisa interpreting), they seemed nice, and she felt a bit better.
She did not meet or speak with Petersen, who lived in Arizona.
(He had been elected as the assessor of Maricopa County in 2014.)
A month and a half after her arrival, she gave birth.
The adoptive parents flew in from Utah and went straight to the hospital to pick up the baby, a boy.
They met Lamy briefly, and then Lamy said goodbye to her son.
As far as she understood, she said, looking out the window, she would be reunited with him when he turned eighteen.
After the birth, Lamy said, she was sad, but she eventually felt that she had made the right decision, especially for Neslina.
Lamy got a job working at the Tyson chicken plant, on the assembly line in the packaging department.
Then she met a new man and thought, at the time, that she had fallen in love.
She stopped working at the Tyson plant and soon was pregnant again.
She knew little about birth control, which is not commonly used in the Marshall Islands.
When it became apparent that the relationship would not last, she decided to place the baby for adoption, and got back in touch with Takehisa.
Things proceeded as they had with the previous pregnancy; she received fifteen hundred dollars every month, and Petersen’s agency chose a couple for her.
They came to meet her in her third trimester.
After she gave birth, she signed the papers and said goodbye.
She started working at another chicken plant and left Neslina in the care of relatives.
Then, at the start of 2019, she got pregnant a fourth time.
She knew where to turn.
Lamy was far from alone.
While adoption is common among the Marshallese community in Arkansas—in a loose, unofficial, familial way, similar to how it is in the islands
—it had also become common, in the region, for Marshallese women to put their babies up for adoption with white American families.
Petersen’s agency was one of the most popular, and had flown many birth mothers, like Lamy, to the United States while they were pregnant.
Another Marshallese woman, who, with her daughter, had only been in the United States for a month and was a week away from giving birth, told me,
“The adoption was the only way I could get here.”
While pregnant in Majuro, she had spoken with her brother in the United States, who occasionally worked for Petersen as a translator and who had,
with his fiancée, placed several of his own children up for adoption through the agency.
What no one had told her, or Lamy, was that, under the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., it is illegal for a woman to travel to the United States for the purpose of
putting a child up for adoption.
Rumors circulated that Marshallese women, as one former employee for the Arkansas Department of Human Services told me, “were selling their babies for cash.”
That was not the case, but, as Kathryn Joyce wrote in The New Republic, in 2015, over the past decade, adoptions of Marshallese babies were occurring in the Springdale
area at an alarming rate, with many of the mothers feeling pressured into a situation that they could not escape.
Joyce profiled one Marshallese woman, Maryann Koshiba, who had placed her baby up for adoption believing that she would be able to keep in touch with the adoptive
parents and see her child in the future.
But, in Arkansas, the law dictates that all adoptions are closed—the birth parents’ identities are sealed and unavailable to the adopted child, and the adoptive parents
’ identities are sealed and unavailable to the birth parents.
(Arrangements can be made to circumvent that law and keep identities transparent.)
Koshiba, however, did not know anything about closed adoption and became increasingly frantic when she was unable to contact the adoptive parents
or find out anything about her baby.
“Welcome to the world of legal realities,” Petersen told The New Republic.
If law-enforcement officials “really want to stop it, then they should bar all Marshallese people—women—from coming to the U.S.
unless they have a medical examiner show they’re not pregnant.”
On Sundays, Shared Beginnings rents out its office’s meeting room for a church service run by the Reverend Lucy Capelle, who moved to Springdale in 2014.
The Marshallese community is overwhelmingly Christian, and there are more than thirty similarly homespun churches in the area.
On the morning I visited, Capelle sang and played an electronic keyboard.
Her husband, who wore a tie made of seashells, read from the Gospel of Mark, then delivered a booming homily.
“What good is it for man to gain the whole world if his faith is sold?” he cried.
The congregation prayed for the health of their island home, and for the health of the community here.
After the service ended, there was a potluck lunch, with a giant pot of rice, chicken soup, and stir-fried vegetable noodles.
“I moved here because of sea-level rise,” Capelle told me.
“I lived close to the sea and had water constantly coming into my apartment.”
One of Capelle’s congregants, Netha Gideon, who is sixty-five, moved to Springdale a year ago, after retiring from her job in Majuro as an accountant
for the Marshall Islands’ Ministry of Public Works.
Among other things, she was involved in efforts to protect the city’s infrastructure with sea walls.
(She also starred in six locally made films, including one called “Jilel: The Calling of the Shell,” about climate change, sea-level rise, and the fossil-fuel industry.)
“We are scared of the rising sea,” she said.
“That’s why most of my family is now here,” in the U.S.
She has four children “and twenty-seven grandchildren,” she said, with a big belly laugh.
She has made sure that all of them are in this country.
Even if world leaders rapidly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, climate migration and displacement will define the twenty-first century.
“We know that a lot of contemporary migration, in fact, is shaped by the adverse impacts of climate change,” Dina Ionesco, the head of the migration, environment,
and climate-change division at the International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.), said at the recent U.N. climate negotiations in Madrid.
Disasters caused by natural hazards—the vast majority were storms and floods—displaced 17.2 million people in 2018
(almost twice as many as those displaced by conflict) and another seven million in the first half of 2019.
Looking ahead, even in a best-case scenario, in which the average global temperature increases no more than 1.7 degrees Celsius, floods are still likely to displace
twenty million people per year by 2090, according to a study released in December by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Without significant greenhouse-gas mitigation, floods could displace as many as fifty million people per year.
“Climate displacement poses a huge global challenge,” Justin Ginnetti, the report’s lead author, said.
“We expect even more extreme weather in the future, so it’s imperative that we understand the magnitude of future risk, what’s driving it, and what we can do about it.”
A paper published in June, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that, at the current rate, sea-level rise could exceed six and a half feet by 2100.
For the Marshall Islands, six and a half feet of sea-level rise would submerge its land entirely, jeopardizing the very idea of Marshallese statehood.
Over the past year, the Marshallese government has been working on a national adaptation plan, which officials expect the United States,
as part of the compact, will help fund and implement.
“We call it our survival plan,” President Heine told me by phone, from Majuro.
The top priority, she said, “is the issue of whether or not we’re above the water.”
Physical adaptations include the costly project of raising sections of Majuro, improved rainwater catchments on the outer islands, regrowing coral reefs,
and new agricultural approaches to locally grown food such as coconut, bananas, breadfruit, and taro.
“We want people to stay here,” Heine said.
“And there are those of us who would not leave no matter what.
They are too invested in their land, their culture, and the country.” She went on, “It is really painful for us to contemplate what might happen.
We want to believe that there is a common humanity out there, and that rich countries will do what they need to do to insure the future of all countries,
including the Marshall Islands.”
(In January, Heine lost her bid for reëlection.)
But, in the era of a shrinking planet, there is also a new imperative to make certain that people “migrate with dignity,” as the I.O.M. puts it
—that migrants and their children are not exploited in schemes like Petersen’s, that they can live healthily, equitably, and safely in new communities.
(International initiatives have been launched in the past several years to create universal legal criteria that define forced migration across international borders
due to climate change.)
Melisa Laelan, the founder of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, wants to see greater legal regulation in Marshallese adoptions,
even a bill similar to the Indian Child Welfare Act, from 1978, which put forth guidelines that Native American children should be placed with a family member,
a member of their tribe, or, if those two options are impossible, a family from another tribe.
The act was a reaction to decades of forced “assimilation,” in which white families took Native American children from their families.
“You’re seeing what happened to Native Americans happen to the Marshallese,” Laelan said.
In early October, after a multiyear federal investigation, a grand jury indicted Petersen in three states—Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas
—for his alleged involvement in an illegal adoption scheme.
The charges, tied to some seventy-five adoptions over three years, include human trafficking, the sale of a child, fraud, forgery,
and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
In Mesa, Arizona, eight pregnant Marshallese women were found living in an apartment that he owned.
Petersen was also charged with illegally accessing more than eight hundred thousand dollars worth of state Medicaid benefits.
In Arkansas, Maki Takehisa was charged with several counts of fraud.
Shared Beginnings, the adoption agency where I met Lamy, took over a number of the Arkansas cases that Petersen’s agency had been handling, helping the mothers
decide whether they wanted to proceed with adoptions.
The day I was there, birth mothers were meeting with their case workers and picking up supplies that the agency provided at no cost—packages of diapers,
prenatal gummy vitamins, bottles of laundry detergent, toiletries, and a closet full of donated clothes and shoes.
The Marshallese community, generally, has been relieved that Petersen was arrested.
“I’m pissed off that it took this long for it to be looked at by the Feds,” Moutina Milne, a Marshallese probation officer in Springdale who also directs a new Marshallese
youth-mentorship group, told me.
“But it is being addressed now, which I’m thankful for.
I wish it had been sooner.
There is no right or wrong, just a lot of heartache.” Sheldon Riklon, a Marshallese doctor in Springdale, told me, “Coming to America is a dream for many of us.
And Petersen—even though he knew exactly what he was doing, that under the compact it is illegal—he did it anyway, taking advantage.”
Petersen has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and was released on bail at the end of October.
His defense team has asked a judge to postpone his trial, which is now scheduled for February of 2021.
“It was sad for me to see that he got out of jail and was flying back home,” Riklon said.
“He spoke about how happy he was to be reunited with his children.
Like he was so fatherly.”
The news of Petersen’s arrest shocked Lamy; in her mind, she said, Takehisa had not been doing anything wrong.
She had still never met Petersen, who, it turned out, had been charging each set of adoptive parents up to forty thousand dollars while only giving the mothers
around ten thousand dollars, to cover expenses.
After the indictment, the parents who were in the midst of proceedings with Petersen’s agency filed a civil lawsuit against him to insure that the adoptions,
if they went forward, were carried out in an ethical manner.
Lamy, however, who was seven months pregnant, had already been in contact with the couple that had previously adopted her second son,
and they had agreed to adopt this child, as well.
She decided, despite the indictments, that placing her son with them, so that he would be with his half-brother, was still the best option.
“The couple wanted to be really sure that she wanted to go through with the adoption,” Pation, Lamy’s cousin, told me.
“So they let her be and did not come visit her until the end of the pregnancy.”
For the third time, Lamy said goodbye.
One evening, I joined Lamy, Pation, and their kids for dinner, at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Springdale.
Lamy, who was looking for a job, was frustrated.
“At the moment, I cannot do things on my own.
I cannot drive,” she said.
“So finding a job is my first priority.
But it can’t require working on a computer or talking to anyone in English.
The only thing I know how to do is work at the chicken factory.”
But she also felt some hope, especially for her daughter.
They had started going to Pation’s Pentecostal church every Sunday.
“I like it,” Lamy said, laughing.
Neslina pointed out a wooden bear carved into a decorative woodland scene, in the wooden booth near where she was sitting.
“Can I touch it?” she asked, her eyes wide.
Lamy said yes, and she scampered over, tracing her finger over all the dancing wooden animals.
“Life here is easier,” Lamy said.
“When things get hard, it’s easier to find a solution.”
Lamy said that she does not want to go through another adoption.
And, in any case, during her experience with Shared Beginnings, she did not receive money in the way that she had with Petersen’s agency.
As Lamy and Neslina went up to the buffet to get dessert, Pation said that it seemed like a good thing that Takehisa and Petersen had been caught.
“Back in the Marshall Islands, people did not have gold or silver,” she said. “We never ever had those kinds of things that people treasure here.
Historically, the only thing that older people had, a long time ago, was their children.
Our gold was our kids.”
Lamy arrived back at the table with slices of orange.
Pation asked her how she felt about the relationship that she will have with her adopted children in the future.
“I was told that they will come back to me when they turn eighteen,” she said, again.
“When they finish school, the adoptive parents will tell the children about me, and eventually they will come back.”
Pation said that Lamy knows this scenario might no longer be the case.
But the adoptive parents do send pictures every month of her sons, which make her happy and sad all at once.
I asked, considering all that had happened, whether they want to return to the islands.
“I don’t like it here,” Pation said, with a wistful smile.
“But with all of these kids we are raising”—Pation’s three children and those of her cousin, who passed away, and also Lamy with Neslina—“I think my future is here.
I don’t know how I would ever be able to go back.”
She cracked off a crawfish’s red tail and added, “Perhaps that is why I don’t feel scared about the sea level rising.
I just feel more heartbreak to know that the island is going to go under.
Because that is where all of our memories are.”
……..even in a best-case scenario, in which the average global temperature increases no more than 1.7 degrees Celsius, floods are still likely to displace
twenty million people per year by 2090 ….. 70 years …. more probably sooner…. no way it stops at 1.7 ….. lots of stories here and among the morals has to be that
tens of millions of people are going to be displaced by rising water in the not too distant future …. …. not a matter of pay me now …pay me later …. we’re paying now and
we’ll be paying later as well….