Courts • It isn't over yet, but Utah ruling takes custody from adoptive parents and gives it to the father.
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Provo • Terry Achane beamed as he walked out of a 4th District courtroom Friday clutching a grocery bag containing two pink baby bottles.
Achane is going to need them.
He was united with his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Teleah, a day earlier, but it wasn't official until Judge Darold McDade said so during an hourlong hearing at the Provo courthouse. While it may not be the end of the story, it was a happy milestone in the Army drill sergeant's lengthy court battle to be united with the child, who was placed for adoption at birth without his knowledge or consent.
"I got my daughter back," said Achane (pronounced A-chan). "I'm very happy. It's 22 months too long, but the wait was worth it."
Jared and Kristi Frei, the Utah couple who planned to adopt Teleah, left the court Friday through a back exit and did not speak with news reporters. Their attorney, Lance Rich, called it an "extremely difficult" time for them and their family. He asked for privacy for them and also for "the little girl whom they considered part of their family for these past 22 months."
"The Freis' focus and concerns at this time are to enable her to make a successful transition to her father," Rich said. "Please respect the privacy of the Frei family and also of the child in this case and allow all involved in this case to heal from this experience."
The Freis have appealed McDade's Nov. 20 decision dismissing their adoption petition and turning over custody to Achane. McDade declined to stay that order and, after a temporary stay, the Utah Supreme Court did, too. The state's high court has set an expedited hearing in the matter for late March.
Achane and his daughter will leave for Fort Jackson in South Carolina on Saturday. Waiting for them is Achane's family, including his mother, who spoke with Teleah on Thursday night.
"There's just a ton of people waiting on her," Achane said. "A ton."
Achane, 31, and his then-wife, Tira Bland, were living in Texas when she conceived Teleah; the baby was due in mid-March 2011.
Achane received a job transfer to Fort Jackson and left Texas in mid-January to report for duty. He planned to return to Texas for the baby's birth and then expected his family to join him in South Carolina.
But 10 days after Achane left Texas, Bland decided to place the baby for adoption. She contacted the Adoption Center of Choice in Utah and told the agency her husband had abandoned her and had no interest in the child. She gave birth in Utah on March 1, 2011. Two days later, Bland relinquished her parental rights, and the baby was placed with the Freis.
Achane did not learn what had become of his daughter until June 2011. He immediately contacted the agency and demanded the return of his daughter, but both the agency and the Freis refused and attempted to proceed with an adoption.
Achane said Friday he often felt overwhelmed during the past two years and thought about giving up, but found it possible to keep going with the encouragement of family, friends and strangers.
"It lightens the burden," he said. "It makes it so you can hang in there."
Asked Friday who was to blame for the debacle, Mark Wiser, Achane's attorney, focused first on Bland, followed by the adoption agency and the Freis. But he also targeted Utah's adoption law.
Bland "came to Utah because Utah allows human trafficking in babies," Wiser said. "This would not have happened in Texas or South Carolina."
Wiser said he expects Achane will prevail. Unless the Utah Supreme Court decides otherwise, Achane wants the Freis to have reasonable telephone and in-person visits with Teleah at Achane's home during the next six months to help her transition to her new family, he said.
"Anything other than that, it is going to be as the parties agree," Wiser said. "If the Freis are cooperative, this could be a situation where it may be very long term. If they are not, it may be more limited based on the way that transition is going."
Achane will become a non-commissioned officer at Fort Shafter in Hawaii in March, a job with the 9-to-5 hours and flexibility he now needs. He won't be deployed overseas for at least two years.
Before being united with Teleah on Thursday, Achane had had two visits with his daughter during trips to Utah for court hearings and spoken with her on the telephone.
The biggest surprise so far? Discovering that Teleah is a little social butterfly.
When the Freis left Teleah with Achane at his hotel in Lehi on Thursday, they brought along clothes, picture books, her three special blankets and other items. Kristi Frei also brought a list of instructions on what Teleah likes to eat, her favorite toys and her bedtime.
"It was hard on them," Achane said of the Freis, adding there were "a lot of tears."
"They raised my daughter right," Achane said of the Freis. "They love my daughter just as much as I do."
But, he added, he understands that now the Freis "know what I've been through. They're feeling that [pain] now."
He said it hurts to know he missed out on many of Teleah's early achievements her first smiles and first steps. Achane said Teleah can say quite a few words like most 2-year-olds, she has mastered "no!" though she doesn't yet call him daddy.
Still,"if you say dad, she looks toward me and comes to me," Achane said.
"She came to me like she already knew who I was," Achane said, "like I was somebody special in her life."