ashley mitchell on paul peterson

The Fine Line Between Adoption & Trafficking: Ashley Mitchell on the Paul Peterson Case

Birth mom and advocate Ashley Mitchell breaks down the case and talks about our responsibility to prevent coercion in adoption.

If you are horrified by the Paul Peterson case (details below), if you’ve ever wondered what happens in “adoption-friendly states,” if you care about ethics in adoption, you must tune in to Ashley Mitchell’s recent talk via Instagram TV.

Case Background

Paul Peterson is an elected official in Arizona who:

  • brought pregnant women from The Marshall Islands to the US (he pleaded guilty last week to human smuggling in Arkansas);
  • got them on Medicaid (he pleaded guilty last week to fraud in Arizona);
  • put them up in housing he owned (and adopting parents paid for through their fees to facilitators);
  • arranged for them to give birth in Utah, an adoption-friendly state in which a mother can sign away her rights as early as 24 hours after birth;
  • paid the mothers after they relinquished rights to their babies;
  • sent them home, and promised the mothers they would get their child back at age 18.

Last fall, news broke that Paul D Peterson had been arrested and was soon indicted in three states — AZ, AR, and UT. Last week he pleaded guilty to various charges around his 3-state scheme.

Thanks to mission work in his youth, Paul Peterson spoke Marshallese, while most of the women likely did not speak English. There was a striking power differential between Paul Peterson and the women he had separated from their support systems, their home base, and their passports.

Ashley Mitchell’s Insider Information & How to Help the Victims of Paul Peterson

Ashley (BigToughGirl.com) has interviewed many of the affected people who were working with adoption facilitators connected with Paul Peterson. In her talk on Instagram she fills us in about the details of the scheme and its effects. She takes the elements of human trafficking and overlays them with tactics used by unethical adoption professionals. Ashley talks about the responsibility all adoptive parents have — whether their adoptions were handled ethically or not. She mentions what her new nonprofit, Lifetime Healing Foundation, is going to do to help the affected mothers.

Going Forward

Imagine a more ethical Adoption World in which the first place a woman in an unplanned pregnancy reaches out to is a healthcare professional rather than an adoption professional.

What would happen if the choice to parent or place were no longer in the hands of internet-savvy adoption predators*? And was instead in the realm of health care professionals? Hospitals and clinics, specifically those trained by the Family to Family Support Network (FFSN, an organization I both work for and donate to), are in a better position to educate a mom on her parenting resources and options in an unbiased way and protect her voice and choice throughout her pregnancy and delivery.

It’s imperative that the first point of contact regarding parenting or placing be with an entity that has no vested interest in the outcome of the mom’s decision. FFSN-trained hospitals have such protocol written into hospital policy.

Know how Paul Peterson finally got caught after years of trafficking mothers and babies? Nurses!

* Some of them are just that! And it’s hard for a novice, particularly a person in crisis, to tell the difference between an ethical adoption professional and a predator.

What are your thoughts on the Paul Peterson case, and Ashley Mitchell’s explanation of the fine line between adoption coercion and human trafficking?


This post is part of #Microblog Mondays. What’s that? A post that is not too long. Head over to Stirrup Queens to join the fun.


Lori Holden's book cover

Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.

14 thoughts on “The Fine Line Between Adoption & Trafficking: Ashley Mitchell on the Paul Peterson Case”

  1. I’ve been following the case since the first reports – what a nightmare for everyone involved. I’d like to think that anyone who adopted a baby through Peterson’s schemes will do what they can to make things right, but the odds are not great.

    I think Ashley made some great points about how making a first mother travel while pregnant is exploitative. And I think your thoughts on medical professionals being the first line is interesting. Would this be in the form of a kind of adoption doula? I know you’re training hospitals and hospital staff to give the first parents some room to make a pressure-free decision. But they all have jobs to do otherwise, so it seems that a particular kind of advocate who does not have ties to adoption agencies would be needed.

    It sounds like there is a lot of work to be done to create the best outcomes for all involved…

    1. Yes! There is a ton of work to do to create a network in and around healthcare that could empower moms to have access to a neutral party that could discuss parenting resources available, and if she wants to consider adoption – ethical adoption resources in that community. With the work we are doing at Family to Family Support Network, we hope to standardize our pro-education model across the country.

  2. It could even start with confirmation of a pregnancy in a doctor’s office or clinic.

    Let’s begin the conversation about a parenting plan. You have some time to figure it out and put the pieces in place. Our hospital is tethered to parenting resources if you see yourself parenting. We are tethered to ethical adoption agencies is you see someone else parenting. You don’t have to reach out to an adoption professional until and unless you’re thinking your parenting plan might involve choosing someone to parent your child. Everyone’s goal is for this baby to leave the hospital in secure arms.

  3. Thank you for this — I watched the video and needed time to mull and think (I have maybe 15 minutes left in it)… really thought provoking. I think what Paul Peterson did was abhorrent, and using his knowledge of Marshallese and his position as a missionary was so slimy. There’s no way that wasn’t trafficking, and exploitation, and I’m glad nurses caught him (but am sad it took so long).

    I also wrestle a lot with this aspect of adoption, and I heard everything Ashley had to say. I have my own post brewing on this, but I definitely think that adoption can be exploitative and unethical and that money plays way too big a part in it. Not just the paying of money, but the exploitation of social class. That part made me very, very uncomfortable.

    I loved what you said: “It’s imperative that the first point of contact regarding parenting or placing be with an entity that has no vested interest in the outcome of the mom’s decision. ” Yes. That should ABSOLUTELY be the case.

  4. I had not heard of this case before, but the little I read here sounds absolutely horrifying! I agree that the setup you’re proposing would be SO much better all round.

  5. This case is horrifying on so many levels. And I think adoption education needs to happen in multiple spaces (ongoing support for all members of the triad), but there does need to be a single space—and a hospital makes sense because it is neutral and doesn’t stand to benefit—to guide this process. For the sake of all members of the triad.

  6. Wow, I didn’t know about this case either. What a powerful piece from Ashley Mitchell. Thanks for linking to it.

    The process in NZ always involves an adoption social worker, by nature independent. And I think in the UK too? (I have a good friend there who is an adoption social worker (and adoptive mum), and she is one who first made me aware of the issues with inter-country adoption like this. I often think the two of you would have a lot to talk about!) I am just very glad there are good people trying to raise awareness to counter the (too many) bad players in the field.

  7. Adoption should not be brought up by anyone but the mother. If she does bring it up, I would hope that anyone in a helping position would not exploit any reason/difficulty the mother gives without first thoroughly exploring and making available all possible services and resources to keep and raise her child. The ‘too poor’, ‘haven’t finished school’, ‘not married’, ‘too young’, etc. are no reasons to relinquish a child/to remove a child from their family forever. The lifetime ramifications of surrender and adoption, for the child and the mother, must be first in consideration, because those issues very often carry over to succeeding generations. Is it really “in the best interest of the child”? Adoption outcomes don’t come with guarantee’s. Leaving (heart)broken human beings in the wake of adoption isn’t helpful.

    Just because a mother gives one of the standard reasons, that so many have been groomed to accept as “good cause” for adoption, doesn’t make it justifiable or right, to then step on the gas and pursue that course.

    Just because the rest of us (extended family, society) are 1). too busy with our own lives to take the time to help another human being into a better place and keep a family together. 2). are so quick to condemn a mother as a “horrible sinner or trash” and say adoption is the only way to “redeem” both mother and child (when often times adoption itself sends both to a figurative hell), or 3). because of a vested interest in acquiring a child for adoption (adoption agencies/attorneys, and those hoping to adopt) is not a reason to take the “easy” way out that provides a so-called solution for all.

    Doctors, hospital (social workers), nurses are not good first lines of defense or “neutral”… they are often the facilitators of adoption/s. Sight unseen and unknown but by those of us affected.

    1. Absolutely, Cindy, no one should exploit. Not adoption professionals and not healthcare professionals.

      With the Family to Family Support Network approach, all staff go through training that explains why they shouldn’t insert themselves into a mother’s parenting decision. It’s amazing to see them begin to understand why this is the case, and then embrace this position. In addition, remaining neutral and not interfering is written in to hospital policy. That way, (1) everyone knows it’s wrong and (2) there can be consequences for breaking policy. It makes the whole process more ethical, above-board, pro-education, and mom/baby-centered.

      In the end, it’s these nurses and others “on the ground” who are in a position to protect the voice and choice of the mom. They just need to know the ethical aspects and be held to an acknowledged standard.

      1. Yep…what Lori said. And I would also say that the national association for OB doctors'(ACOG) official ethics statement says doctors should be able to support moms with education, but have no infrastructure in place aside from just calling an adoption agency (or as one CEO told me, “We don’t need a program…we just use Catholic Charities”) to support a mom struggling with what to do.
        I am thankful they state physicians should not be brokering adoptions, but we know that is informally still happening.
        https://www.acog.org/en/Clinical/Clinical%20Guidance/Committee%20Opinion/Articles/2012/06/Adoption

        1. That committee opinion needs a lot of work. I do not see a proper ethical practice in much of what was stated. I see a slanted toward adoption approach.

          I’m tired, just so tired of the monstrosity of unjust, unethical treatment of mothers.

          A mother should be treated as mother until after her child is born… well after. This gotta move the baby along the pipeline as fast as possible is ……………so wrong.

          “We don’t need a program…we just use Catholic Charities”) to support a mom struggling with what to do.” Wow, some “support”. If a mothers heart is having that much difficulty -get a bloomin’ clue. She doesn’t really want to lose her child, she just feels backed into a hopeless corner, and ‘not good enough’. Wake up folks. Please!

          1. It might surprise you, Cindy, that we’re in agreement.

            “A mother should be treated as mother until after her child is born… well after. This gotta move the baby along the pipeline as fast as possible is ……………so wrong.”

  8. Thanks Lori.
    Frankly, I was nuts to write that the way I did. A mother is a mother for the rest of her life. That won’t ever change. What I meant was she should not be treated in any other way than being the only and exclusive mother of her own child… unless and until she makes a fully informed, freewill decision to relinquish her child to another to parent. Had to clarify that for any who might think I was implying she’s not a mother after (if making an adoption plan).

    And, I should have made clear who I was directing the ‘Wake up folks. Please!’ to. It is directed at those who don’t see ethical treatment clearly. Those who do not put themselves in the place of the (expectant) mother and think seriously and long about how they would feel in her place. Ethics come from empathy (my opinion of course). Maybe that’s some of what makes ethical treatment of a mother so hard for some, their empathy lies more with one (hopeful mother) than the other (mother).

    Stay strong and keep “calling bull$hit”.

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