SALT LAKE CITY — A Colorado juvenile court has ruled that a father in a dismissed Utah adoption case will share custody of his daughter with the couple who have become her "psychological parents."
Rob Manzanares has sought custody of his daughter for six years, weeks before the girl was born in a Utah hospital and given to a Utah couple for adoption. Amidst years of legal battles, the girl who court documents referred to as "Baby B" came to know two families.
"She knows me as daddy," Manzanares said. "She knows she has two dads."
After three days of oral arguments last December, Colorado juvenile court announced this week that Manzanares, who now lives in New Mexico, and the Utah couple will share joint custody of the girl across state lines.
Manzanares said the scenario is likely better than other fathers sharing custody might have, and he is enthusiastic about the future he has with his daughter, the chance for her to get to know her siblings and grandparents and the prospect of being part of her life.
"In the short term, I'm going to build a strong relationship with my daughter and be her daddy," Manzanares said. "I'm going to be the best father I can be to her."
But in the wake of the decision six years in the making, Manzanares worries about the precedent being set for other biological fathers who say they were victims of Utah's adoption laws.
"What we're truly saying about these adoptions is, 'Just drag these cases on for years and years at a time and you can, at a minimum, win primary care and joint custody of these children you aren't related to,'" Manzanares said.
The Utah Supreme Court dismissed the Baby B adoption case in March 2012, overruling a decision by a lower court to terminate Manzanares' paternity claim because it had not been filed in Utah.
The case was referred back to courts in Colorado, where both biological parents lived at the time. At the time of the pregnancy, the girl's mother said she was coming to Utah from Colorado to visit a sick relative, but instead gave birth to the child. The mother finalized the adoption the same day she was supposed to attend a paternity hearing in Colorado, according to court documents.
In its 47-page decision, the Colorado juvenile court cited opinions from a child psychologist who reported the girl is too young to understand the situation or decide for herself between the two households, and that permanently removing her from the parents she has known since birth could be traumatic.
However, the court acknowledged Manzanares has not developed a relationship with his daughter because the girl's biological mother and would-be adoptive parents actively sought to prohibit it.
"It was a bit of a challenge in the beginning for my daughter. She didn't quite understand," Manzanares said.
He is considering appealing the Colorado custody decision because of his concern about its impact on future cases, but said he wouldn't seek to cut out the other family.
"She knows these people. She loves these people. She's known them all six years of her life," Manzanares said. "They've done a good job of caring for my daughter. They care about her and love her too. I want them to have a strong shared role in her life. As hard as it is to have no bitterness towards them whatsoever, we have to put the child first."
Adoption attorney Wes Hutchins called the custody decision troubling, which he likened to incentivizing kidnapping and fraud in adoption cases.
Hutchins is representing Manzanares in a fraud case in Utah, seeking financial damages in the now overturned adoption. Hutchins represents a number of biological fathers contesting adoptions done in Utah, several of which involve adoptive couples and biological mothers from outside the state who came specifically to perform the adoptions under Utah law.
Hutchins said his case representing a dozen fathers in a civil rights case against the Utah Attorney General's Office. That number will soon grow to about 30 fathers, he said.
"There needs to be accountability for agencies that engage in unethical and fraudulent conduct," Hutchins said. "No longer should it be legal to commit fraud and not be able to undo an adoption that's based on fraud."
Manzanares and Hutchins said they hope Utah law will change to prevent adoptions that can cut out a child's biological father and possibly victimize unknowing adoptive parents, preventing future drawn-out legal battles.
"At the beginning and the end of all these battles is a child that is innocent, that didn't deserve this, didn't want this and didn't ask for any of this," Manzanares said. "We have to put that child first."
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