SALT LAKE CITY — In the grand scheme of things, it's probably just an inch.
But it's an inch forward for a cause that has had a tough past in Utah.
The state Supreme Court released a decision Wednesday in favor of Daniel Austin, a father who was not married to the mother of his child.
Austin is still working to prove that he is, in fact, the child's father, but the court's decision has made it possible for him to try to do so.
"I think we struck a blow, but it's not a victory for us yet," said Bruce Wilson, the paternal grandfather of the child. "How it all shapes out remains to be seen."
Grace Acosta, Austin's attorney, said the case was important for the statement it made.
"Utah is not a state that recognizes unwed fathers' rights," she said. "We believe in marriage, that you should marry someone if you have babies with them, and when that doesn't happen, it strikes against the dad. This is a big case."
According to the court decision, Austin originally was listed as the father on the birth certificate of the baby when the boy was born in January 2007. Austin was incarcerated at the time, but his mother was at the hospital and could have made sure Austin signed it, Wilson said. He said no one told her how important that signature was.
Because Austin never confirmed his paternity in writing, his name was removed from the birth certificate, the ruling states. The only proof Austin had was a birth announcement printed in a local newspaper that listed him as the baby's father and letters he wrote saying he wanted to care for the child.
Instead, the baby stayed with his mother until July 2007, when he was placed in protective care with the Division of Child and Family Services. DCFS then placed the baby with a foster family, which has had the child since then.
Soon after, the state filed a petition to terminate the mother's rights. At that point, Austin was still working on proving through DNA testing that he was the father. The court set a date for a DNA test, but there was confusion over where and when the test was to occur, and Austin missed the date.
A date was set for the petition to go through in October 2007, and Austin voiced concerns that the case was moving forward without his paternity established, but his court-appointed counsel told him it didn't matter, the ruling states.
In a further effort to protect his rights, he filed a motion to intervene, but it wasn't enough. The mother voluntarily relinquished her rights to the child. With Austin's paternity still in question, he was told the court didn't view him as a valid party and dismissed his motion.
The Supreme Court decision reversed the dismissal and gave Austin an evidentiary hearing to establish himself as the child's father. Wilson said it was something they never would have had to fight for if Austin's original counsel had told him how important it was to verify that he was the father early in the process. Instead, it's been a two-year ordeal.
"We've kind of leveled the playing field to give fathers a better break, but it's been 2 1/2 years of pure hell," Wilson said. "We've been lied to, deceived, misrepresented."
And both Acosta and Wilson said it would be impossible to take on the state without a good deal of money.
"Luckily, his family had money," Acosta said. "A normal person who had lost their child doesn't have $100,000 to fight for their child, to say, 'Hey I'm the dad.' Most would have just walked away."
At this point, Austin doesn't want custody, Acosta said. She said he knows the family that has cared for his baby loves the child, and Austin wants to move forward. He just wants to be able to receive e-mail updates or pictures of the baby — something a mother involved in an adoption might seek.
"He doesn't want the moon. He just wants to be part of the kid's life to some degree, and they just pushed him aside," Acosta said. "He's entitled to something. He just wants something."