Victor Johnson has never met the 4-year-old girl he claims is his daughter. And although a hearing scheduled in federal court in Salt Lake City Tuesday is pivotal to the future he wants to have with her, the Arizona man did not make the trip to attend it.
"He doesn't want to go to Utah," Johnson's Phoenix attorney, C. Robert Collins, told the Deseret News on Monday. "He thinks that (Utahns) are prejudiced folks. Rightly or wrongly, that's the way he feels, that the state of Utah has treated him unfairly."
Johnson, who is black, says Utah's adoption laws violate a father's parental rights. In 1998 he sued the child's birth mother, the Pleasant Grove couple who adopted the girl and the Orem agency that arranged the adoption. He is seeking a genetic test of the baby and $1 million in damages for interference in family relationships.
Johnson claims Monica Rodrigues Orozco told him she had an abortion but instead gave birth on March 5, 1997. Johnson claims he didn't learn about it until several months later.
Under Utah law, fathers who want to pursue their rights to a child born outside of marriage have to register with the Department of Health. Johnson claims he did that.
But Utah adoption statutes do not require adoption agencies, once they know of a father's interest or objection, to disclose information about the pending adoption to the father. Johnson says he contacted the center days before the adoption was final, but the center withheld information. "In our view, they were stonewalling," Collins said.
"Frankly, that's an outrageous allegation," responded Karra Porter, who represents Adoption Center of Choice. "(Johnson) knew as early as May 1 (1997) that this baby was in Utah. He even knew the address of the adoption agency in June. The only person dragging his feet was the plaintiff."
Porter said Johnson has even admitted in a sworn affidavit that he saw Orozco when she was nearly eight months pregnant, yet didn't contact any authorities about his parental rights until months after the birth.
"He has said under oath that even though he thought she'd had an abortion, it was obvious that she hadn't," Porter said.
As to the adoption center's cooperation, Porter said such agencies have confidentiality requirements imposed on them by Utah law to maintain the privacy of an adoption. "(Johnson's) interpretation would put these agencies in a real quandary," she said.
Johnson is asking U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell to declare Utah adoption law unconstitutional when applied to nonresidents.
"That's basically the issue," Collins said. "The other side is claiming that Utah statute can apply to anybody anywhere in the country, and we don't agree with that."
Campbell has already heard Johnson's story and dismissed the case once. In 1999, she ruled that his suit should have been filed in state court instead, but she was overruled on appeal.
Phillip Lowry, the attorney for the adoptive couple — whose names, along with the child's are under seal — said the case hinges first on what Johnson knew and when he knew it, then on what rights he might have.
Porter said while the judge would not be determining custody, Campbell's decision in the case could set an important precedent for "all adoptions in which there may be a father out of state."