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Four years ago, as it returned a young boy to his biological father, the Utah Supreme Court expressed alarm that contested adoptions were taking so long to resolve and urged that such cases be put on a fast track.
In that particular case, the child was 18 months old when his mother placed him for adoption and the father sought to intervene, a legal battle that ended in the dad's favor nearly three years later.
"We anticipate that, in the future, every effort will be made to avoid delay in cases like this," the court said, asking that the boy be reunited with his father with "all due haste" while paying "special attention" to the child's needs.
"This transition may be hardest for him, and his needs must come first," the justices said in the 2007 decision.
But there is no indication that the time it takes for contested adoptions to work through Utah's court system has improved, leaving some observers to repeat calls for an expedited process like that used in child welfare cases to reach quicker final decisions and lessen psychological trauma when a placement is disrupted.
Robert Manzanares, for example, began a custody bid for his daughter more than a month before her birth in 2008, filing first in Colorado and then here in Utah. The case wound its way from a lower court to the Utah Supreme Court over 2½ years. Utah's high court then took 15 months to issue a decision in Manzanares' favor sending the case back to trial court for more debate over who has the right to raise the child. Last week, a Utah judge agreed to dismiss the case so the girl's custody can be decided in Colorado; those proceedings will likely continue for at least several more months.
Manzanares' daughter is now 4 years old.
"These kids are growing up fast," said Joshua Peterman, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented several unwed biological fathers in bids to stop or reverse adoptions. "There is a big difference between removing a child who is less than a year old from her home and taking a 4-year-old out of a home. It's essentially a failure of the system to protect them. They should be moving a lot quicker."
Protracted adoption cases don't just involve unwed biological fathers.
A biological mother who placed her baby for adoption at birth sought to reverse the decision months later after alleging she'd been misled about the adoptive parents' capabilities. The boy was nearly 6 by the time the Utah Supreme Court issued an opinion that returned the case to the appeals court so the mother could argue for custody.
In the majority opinion, issued in 2006, Justice Ronald E. Nehring lamented the "very human saga that has played out on the stage of our courts."
"We hold fast to the hope that in the near future E.H. will know who his parents will be and where he will call home," Nehring wrote, adding that the word "unfortunate" greatly "understates our concern for the harmful effects that years of litigation have visited on this young man."
In that case, the mother ultimately lost her fight.
David Hardy, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the birth mother in the Manzanares case, said members of the Utah Adoption Council have discussed the need for an expedited track for contested adoptions but so far nothing has happened.
A 2010 article in the Journal of Law & Family Studies made the case for a "speedy court process" like that used for juvenile court shelter hearings and appeals in child welfare cases, noting that the "lack of a specific rule for expediting contested adoption cases means that appeals take years." According to the article, 90 percent of termination of parental rights and voluntary relinquishment cases between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009, were completed within a year.
"A similar expedited timeframe for contested adoption cases would better serve the best interests of the child, the father and the adoptive parents," the article states.
But despite "some discussion" there has so far been "no real action," Hardy said. And so the lengthy legal battles continue.
Another example: Floridian Ramsey Shaud, one of Peterman's clients, filed a paternity action in Utah three days before his daughter's birth on Jan. 15, 2010. Four months later a lower court judge ruled he had not strictly complied with Utah's strict adoption law, which requires notice of a paternity action to be filed within a day of birth. Although Shaud filed his paperwork on time, it wasn't recorded by the state's Office of Vital Records and Statistics until Jan. 20, 2010, because of a holiday and the state's then four-day work week.
Shaud appealed and the Utah Supreme Court heard arguments in Shaud's case on September 2011. If the past is a guide, Shaud's daughter will be nearly 3 before the court issues its decision in the case.
"The appellate process is a slow process … no matter what kind of case," said Linda Smith, a professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and the attorney who represented the birth mom in the 2006 case. "From the time the trial concludes until you get a decision from the Utah Supreme Court, it's a year and if you go through the appeals court, it is two years."
But, "in issues of custody, especially when a child might change families, it is wrong to take this long," she said.
The prospect that a judge's own heart strings may be pulled is a liability of protracted cases, one that may lead to "ends-mean thinking" where emotions influence decisions, Smith said. The Utah Supreme Court distanced itself from emotional decision making in its 2007 decision, noting in its opinion that: "Once an unmarried biological father has established standing to contest, and does in fact contest, an adoption, the level of bonding between child and anyone other than the biological parents becomes legally irrelevant."
But the best way for courts to ensure fair and rational decisions is to deal with a case early enough that "heartstrings aren't tugged," Smith said. "They should institute a rule where they would fast track these cases, not allow any extensions and the timeframe might be truncated."
David McConkie, an adoption attorney who now works for LDS Church Family Services, has handled cases where children were removed from adoptive families.
"The hardest cases the courts ever deal with are cases when they've got a baby being raised in a home and they've got to remove that child from a home," he said. "But judges will follow the law, and they will apply the law and say if the father's rights were violated under the statutes of whatever state you're in, they'll remove those children from that home. It happens more than you think."
But there is no question that the more time that passes, the more uncomfortable the prospect of disrupting a placement becomes for nearly all those involved a situation that would seem to benefit prospective adoptive parents.
"My experience generally is that adoptive couples want resolution and don't generally seek to specifically drag things out," Hardy said. "They may recognized that is to their advantage, but they won't take steps to specifically drag things out. In my experience, it is generally the system that drags it out, not one party or another that does so."
Hardy said he has had several cases, most outside of Utah, in which a judge was "very reluctant" to disrupt custody because a child had been with adoptive parents for a lengthy period. Instead, the judge urged the parties to come up with an alternative, such as shared custody or visitation.
That's happened in a few Utah cases, too, after Utah Supreme Court decisions issued opinions favoring an unwed father's right to intervene in an adoption proceeding.
The months and years of uncertainty are stressful for all the adults, no doubt, but the greatest concern is for the well-being of the child at the center of these adoption disputes.
Doug Goldsmith, executive director of The Children's Center in Salt Lake City, said at the point a trial judge makes a finding, a child is typically no older than a year or so.
"The months that subsequently pass, especially when the father has not had any contact, are critical to the child's psychological health," he said, adding that fathers face a "significant complication" in that toddlers and preschool-age children are too young to grasp what a "dad" is.
"One of the things we know with attachment research is that after the age of 2 it gets more difficult to move children successfully," Goldsmith said. "And moving a 4-year-old who says, 'This is mommy and daddy' is a very different story than moving a child who is not quite that developed yet."
And, he points out, a child isn't just being removed from the adoptive parents. There is a whole community siblings, extended relatives, people the child may know at church or school, even the family pets who are left behind.
"It's really, really complicated but we don't have great answers for it yet," he said. Ideally, it would be sorted out before birth, or at least by the time an infant is 6 months old, he added.
That's one of the objectives of the voluntary pre-birth notice provision just approved by the Utah Legislature, Hardy said. The provision allows a birth mother, adoption agency or their attorneys to send an unwed father a notice that the mother is considering an adoption proceeding in Utah and giving him 30 days to fully assert his rights under the state's statute.
Ideally, an unwed father shouldn't have to intervene, which would greatly shorten the process, said Erik Smith, an Ohio attorney who years ago engaged in his own custody battle. "You want to have timely registration and then get notice and a hearing right away," he said. "If you have to intervene, you're too late already."
"It's a bummer for everybody, in my opinion, mostly for the child and the contesting parent," he said. "Regardless of whether he or she, usually he, wins or loses, it's a very stressful time and your anxiety is high. You know your child is getting older every day that goes by and you're losing that experience. You miss that part of life. And if a child is taken out of a home at a later age … that's hard on the child and the adoptive parents."
According to court data, there have been just 16 contested adoption cases in 3rd District Court, the state's largest, since 2005. That count may not include paternity actions filed by unwed biological fathers.On average it took judges in 3rd District Court 535 days to resolve the contested cases between 2005 and 2011. The average number of days last year was 777.