A Utah judge on Friday refused to stay his decision giving a South Carolina father custody of his 22-month-old daughter, who was placed for adoption by his ex-wife without the man's knowledge or consent.
Fourth District Judge Darold McDade also left intact his ruling that set a Jan. 16 deadline for the couple who now have the child to give her up.
Lance Rich, an attorney representing adoptive parents Jared and Kristi Frei, said they will ask the Utah Court of Appeals to issue a stay while they appeal McDade's rulings.
The Freis declined to comment after the 2½-hour hearing, which McDade scheduled on short notice and closed to media. Terry Achane, the child's father, was unable to travel to Utah for the hearing, his attorney said.
"It's a very weighty issue for the judge," Scott Wiser, one of Achane's attorneys, said outside the courtroom. "It's a difficult human case and [the judge] is trying to do the best he can with the arguments out there, the rights of the parties, and what's best for Teleah. That was forefront in his mind, what's in Teleah's best interests."
"She's going to be well loved by both these parents," Wiser added. "She's going to be just fine in Mr. Achane's care. He loves her, he has plans. The Freis have been wonderful parents, but the bottom line is he has a fundamental right protected by the Constitution one of the oldest rights we have to raise his own daughter, and the law respects that."
Wiser said the parties would discuss visitation and the reunification process while they wait to see what the Court of Appeals decides. Achane is a drill sergeant for the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and traveling to Utah to see his daughter is a hardship, he said.
"Right now Mr. Achane is the only person with legal rights to the child," Wiser said. "He is the only legal parent, the only person with rights, so right now he's getting custody unless something happens between now and then."
Steven Boone of Pleasant Grove showed up at the courthouse Friday and waited until the hearing ended to hand Achane's attorney a check to help with legal expenses. Boone said he wanted to support Achane to show the Freis "this won't be tolerated by their peers."
"If you keep allowing people to do the wrong things, it won't stop," said Boone, who became interested in father's rights issues while fighting his ex-wife for custody of their son. "I wanted to show that the public doesn't accept it. I know I'm just one person, but eventually others will [act]."
A fundraising effort to aid Achane's legal fight has collected about $3,000, according to a Facebook page. The Freis also are soliciting help with their legal bills and have raised over $22,000.
Achane and his then-wife Tira Bland were living in Texas when she conceived, Teleah, their first child, who was due in mid-March of 2011. He received a transfer to South Carolina and was told to report for duty by Feb. 1, 2011. His wife planned to stay in Texas until the baby's birth and Achane planned to come back for the delivery.
But 10 days after Achane left Texas, Bland decided to place the baby for adoption. She contacted the Adoption Center of Choice, then located in Orem, and told them her husband had abandoned her and had no interest in the child. Bland traveled to Utah in mid-February and gave birth on March 1, 2011. She relinquished her parental rights two days later, and the baby was placed with the Freis.
Achane did not learn what had become of his child until June 2011, when Bland finally told him she had given birth in Utah and placed the child through the Adoption Center of Choice. At that point, he contacted the agency and its attorney to demand return of his daughter, but they refused and proceeded with the adoption.
The dispute finally went to court last October, and in December McDade issued a 48-page ruling admonishing the Adoption Center of Choice and the Freis for ignoring Achane once he stepped forward as the child's legally recognized father.
"At that juncture, the right thing for the Freis and the Adoption Center of Choice to have done would have been to make arrangements to return Teleah to Mr. Achane with all due haste," the judge wrote in that decision.
State issues conditional license for agency
State regulators have given the Adoption Center of Choice five months to address rule violations in order to keep its license.
The agency had been operating under a corrective action plan since September, when its license was extended but not renewed while it tried to meet state requirements. That extension expired at the end of December.
The agency on Jan. 3 was given a conditional license that will expire in May, when it must be in full compliance with state rules, said Ken Stettler, director of the Office of Licensing for the Utah Department of Human Services.
Among concerns was a lack of documentation in case files maintained by the Adoption Center of Choice, Stettler said. An administrative rule requires adoption agencies to have a policy and procedure manual outlining all aspects of its operation, from employee training to how it identifies children available for adoption and evaluates prospective adoptive parents. In particular, the agency did not have adequate files on children, birth parents and prospective adoptive parents.
"There were a number of past cases and a few current that did not have all of the items that are mentioned in this rule," he said.
The agency has 10 days to appeal the decision to an administrative law judge. At the end of May, if it has not corrected the deficiencies, the state could suspend its license for up to a year.