Like Thurnwald, Wyatt believed that he and girlfriend, Colleen Fahland, would raise baby Emma together. He went to doctor appointments and spoke to the baby soothingly inside Fahland’s belly, with the belief that childhood connection to a father’s voice can begin before birth. Wyatt and Fahland, who have known each other since second grade and dated for about three years prior to the pregnancy, are still romantically involved, he says. While Fahland has declined all interviews with the news media, her attorney and Wyatt say she regrets her role in the adoption.
On the day of the Emma’s birth, Wyatt and his mother arrived at the hospital for the delivery, but the hospital would not let them in. So-called “silent patient” privacy policies allow patients to have no information released about them.
Wyatt knows what happened next only secondhand from Fahland and from court testimony. He says she was isolated in a hotel room and pressed by representatives of the adoption agency and her own mother to sign the relinquishment papers. “To me, it sounds like they took advantage of her,” Wyatt says.
It’s disputed whether Wyatt filed for custody of the child in Virginia court before the adoption papers were signed by Fahland, but both sides agree a Virginia court has granted temporary custody to Wyatt while the Utah court granted temporary custody to adoptive parents, Thomas and Chandra Zarembinski of Utah. The Zarembinskis could not be reached for comment. Jenkins, their attorney, however, says Wyatt didn’t comply with the time requirements of either state.
Joshua Peterman is Wyatt’s attorney in Utah. “Everybody knew from Day 1 that [Wyatt] was opposed to the adoption, interested in raising the child and ready, willing and able,” Peterman says.
Peterman believes the adoption violated the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, which prevents parents from seeking a child-custody order in another state once one state has already decided the matter. He argues the act clearly determines that Virginia should decide what happens to baby Emma, who turned 17 months old this month. The Zarembinskis are required to appear for an order-to-show-cause hearing in Virginia in August for violating the judge’s custody order in favor of Wyatt. The Utah Supreme Court will consider the case in September.
For John and his mother, Jeri Wyatt, the Zarembinskis and A Act of Love Adoption Agency are outright kidnappers, and they’re not ashamed of making that strong accusation. “We’ve asked nicely plenty of times. We’ve gone through the legal and court system and they still haven’t given her back,” John Wyatt says. “But I’m keeping faith that they’ll do the right thing and return my child."
Wyatt maintains the Web site babyemmawyatt.com.
Many of these fathers blame one man more than any other for their situation: Larry Jenkins. He’s been a fixture on Capitol Hill for at least the past five years as the sponsor of new adoption legislation. He is, and was, opposing counsel in the cases with Wyatt and Shaud, as well as Thurnwald and O’Dea.
During the 2010 session of the Utah Legislature, former Rep. Sheryl Allen, the Bountiful Republican who is the Democrats’ candidate for lieutenant governor, sponsored a bill that impacted several aspects of Utah adoption laws, and in one section further restricted putative fathers’ access to their children. At her side was Jenkins—he did most of the talking. She introduced him to the Senate and House health and human services committees only as a leader of the Utah Adoption Council. Neither she nor Jenkins mentioned his lobbyist ties, though Allen says in an interview that she was aware of them.
Jenkins was the only expert to testify regarding the bill, saying multiple times, “There’s nothing in this bill that changes current law. We’re just taking what the [Utah] Supreme Court said last year and putting it into code.” The bill further restricted a father’s ability to challenge a Utah adoption through challenges filed in other states (click here to get more information on the bill from the Utah Legislature Web site, including audio recordings of committee testimony).
While Jenkins’ claims about the Supreme Court rulings were true, he didn’t mention that the fathers in those cases were procedurally barred from claiming that their constitutional rights were violated, that one of the cases was a 3-2 decision, nor that Chief Justice Christine Durham, in her dissent, expressed concerns that the majority was not correctly interpreting the legislative intent behind the word “residency” as it pertains to the birth mothers. Jenkins didn’t mention Davis’ concern about fathers’ “impossible bind” or Durham’s worries about Utah’s potential magnetism for mothers wanting to unfairly clip fathers’ rights.
Jenkins’ response: “I know that Chief Justice said what she said, but I haven’t had anybody suggest that there ought to be something changed about the statute. … Why comment on provisions we aren’t changing?” he asked.
Many lawmakers are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the laws; for example, two members of the committees that approved the bill explicitly admitted their ignorance. Moreover, in an interview, Allen, who has sponsored multiple bills at the behest of the Utah Adoption Council and Jenkins, said she does not believe that families who do not travel to Utah should be allowed to place their child for adoption under Utah law. She was unaware that laws she has personally amended multiple times in past years authorize exactly that and laid the foundation for the cross-state battle in the Wyatt case.
Rep. Lorie Fowlke says a lobbyist like Jenkins is entitled to slant his testimony in favor of his clients. The family-law attorney is concerned, however, that most legislators may be unaware, as she was, that Jenkins is a lobbyist for adoption firms like A Act of Love—which had $9.6 million in gross receipts (pdf) between 2004 and 2008—and is not just a leader of the Utah Adoption Council, which earns virtually no revenue (pdf).
“That should have been something they knew … so they know where he’s coming from,” she says. “I think [Jenkins being a lobbyist] changes the color of it just a bit.”
Even after all the court fights, when and if the fathers are successful at stopping the adoption—and some of them are—they don’t automatically take custody of the child. “These birth fathers, they say they want the child, but if they stop the adoption, the reality is they’re not going to get the child, the mother is,” Jenkins says. “And 99 percent of the time, they’re going to pay child support for 18 years and the child is going to bounce back and forth [between mom and dad].” Seeking adoption services cannot be used as a negative against the mother in the ensuing custody battle; Jenkins promoted bills in recent years that prevent that.
Drage has represented fathers who stopped an adoption only to lose custody of the child to the mother and pay child support. But for those fathers, he said, any contact with their child is better than none.
Seventeen years ago, author and paralegal Erik L. Smith, of Dayton, Ohio, successfully stopped the adoption of his own child. Since then, he’s written a book, yet to be published, that contains 152 pages describing putative father/adoption contests across the country. He says, “Utah is out of control. … Utah is more burdensome [to putative fathers] than any other state.
Smith thinks there’s a national conspiracy of adoption practitioners: “They have a network of attorneys, the agencies do, where if a father does what he’s supposed to do in the home state, the agency can call up an attorney in Utah, and the mother will go there.”
That’s a problem for adoptions everywhere. Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation, says profits may explain some of the moral compromises made by adoption agencies, but even more so, he says, practitioners can be shortsighted and convince themselves that cutting out the father is the right thing to do.
“They may mean well in helping this one woman or one child … but when the negative publicity hits, when we see cases like the ones we’re observing now … the damage is done,” Pertman says. “The [repercussions are] even broader because too many people look at cases like this, they don’t know how common they are—rare or everyday—they just shake their head. Then they look at their next-door neighbor who adopted and wonder, ‘Did they do that, too?’ "
Listen to RadioActive at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 29, to hear more about this story. Tune in to KRCL 90.9 FM or stream it live at KRCL.org.
Gone Baby Gone: A Mexican grandmother fights Utah's bureaucracy for custody of her nieta. (Apr. 29, 2009)