FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (CN) – Thirteen families who paid thousands of dollars in adoption fees to embattled attorney Paul Petersen filed a lawsuit in Arkansas Thursday seeking a constructive trust over their cases and funds days after federal authorities in three states indicted him on charges, including human smuggling, sale of a child and fraud.
The unnamed families who reside in various states want Petersen, a Republican who also serves as the assessor of Maricopa County, Arizona, to stop acting on their pending adoption cases. They say Petersen and co-defendant Megan Wolfe “abused the confidence placed in them” and left them scrambling for answers on how to move forward.
Petersen was charged in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas this week with an expansive international adoption fraud scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands, and adoptive families in the United States duped in the process.
He is accused of recruiting pregnant Marshallese women to give up their babies for adoption and paying for the women’s travel to the U.S. for the sole purpose of adoption, according to the 32-count Arizona indictment. A 1983 treaty between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the United States prohibits citizens from entering the U.S. for the purpose of adoption.
Dak Kees, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said at a news conference on Wednesday that Petersen “used his law license to prey not only upon the women of the Marshall Islands but on many innocent families here in Arkansas who wanted nothing more than to add to their families.”
He was charged in Arkansas with an 11-count indictment.
The 13 families who sued Petersen in Washington County, Arkansas on Thursday say they were matched with pregnant biological parents who allegedly resided in the state. Arkansas has one the largest concentrations of Marshallese immigrants in the country, and Petersen would charge adoptive families an average of $30,000 – $40,000 per adoption, according to his website.
“It cannot be assumed or reasonably believed that Mr. Petersen will be able to continue representing biological parents with whom the Plaintiffs have been matched for adoption,” the families say in the Oct. 10 lawsuit.
The families, who are represented by Joshua Bryant of Rogers, Arkansas, say a constructive trust over their adoption cases and thousands of dollars in funds is necessary to prevent Petersen’s fraudulent and deceptive conduct from causing them irreparable damage. Their lawsuit also seeks to suspend payments involved in the process and to appoint an attorney ad litem for the biological parents Petersen already matched with adoptive families.
A hearing set to take up several of the families’ motions, including one to seal the case and close the courtroom, is scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m. in Fayetteville.