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John Wyatt says this is the thought that keeps him going: One day, he will be with his daughter.

Wyatt knows the daughter he calls Emma, now 18 months old, only through photographs. Since her birth in a Virginia hospital, he has waged a battle in two states to assert his right to have custody of Emma.

The next round will take place Thursday before the Utah Supreme Court, where attorneys will argue adoption law, jurisdiction and, perhaps, whether a child is better off being raised by two parents than a single father.

Wyatt claims Utah's laws are unfairly aligned against unmarried biological fathers and that a Utah judge ignored legal decisions made in his home state and the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act.

"I have the law on my side," said Wyatt, 22. "These people are blatantly breaking the law. They are just trying to wait us out, hope that we'll run out of money or give up."

But about a dozen other biological fathers, most from other states, have failed in similar fights against Utah's tough paternity requirements. Rulings found that the fathers failed to strictly meet a law requiring them to register their paternity within a certain time frame and to prove in court they could care for the child — regardless of action taken in their home states.

Larry Jenkins, the Salt Lake City adoption attorney who has been involved in at least seven of those cases, also is representing the couple who took custody of Wyatt's daughter days after her birth.

Jenkins said Wyatt's claims were filed too late in both Utah and Virginia.

"Our perspective is he didn't do what he needed to do to preserve his rights in the child," Jenkins said.

Wyatt says his desire to be a father was clear from the start. He was thrilled in May 2008 when girlfriend Emily Colleen Fahland announced she might be pregnant. The two had known each other since grade school and dated on and off since junior high.

He was with Fahland when a test confirmed the pregnancy.

"I was very excited," said Wyatt. But Fahland, then 19, was "scared, crying."

Wyatt's father passed away when he was 10, sharpening his desire to parent his child. According to Wyatt, he and Fahland agreed they would raise the baby together.

Wyatt accompanied Fahland to doctors' appointments during the pregnancy and the two spoke often of marrying, he said.

But as Fahland entered the last months of pregnancy she told Wyatt she was being pressured by friends and family to consider adoption.

"But every time we talked she maintained that we were going to raise the baby," he said.

In January 2009, Fahland began working with A Act of Love Adoption Agency, a Utah business. In the papers Fahland filled out, she described her relationship with Wyatt and wrote that he "wants to keep the baby." Fahland indicated she wanted the agency to contact Wyatt and provided his telephone number.

Fahland wrote that she was placing the baby for adoption so it would "have the life I can't give it."

Court documents also say Fahland called Wyatt on Feb. 4 and told him she was working with the Utah agency — a pivotal date Jenkins argues started a 20-day clock ticking for Wyatt to register with Utah's Putative Father database. The documents also say Fahland sent Wyatt a text message about her plans.

Wyatt claims he had no idea what Fahland had done. He said she spoke only of getting information from the agency; he never heard from Act of Love. Wyatt thought their plan was still intact: When labor started, Fahland would call him and he would join her at the hospital for the birth.

But that didn't happen.

Fahland gave birth on Feb. 10, 2009. A day later she signed a waiver of Virginia law and agreed to proceed with an adoption in Utah. The parents she chose for her daughter — Thomas and Chandra Zarembinski — traveled to Virginia on Feb. 12 and spent five days there before returning to Utah with Emma.

Wyatt says he called but was unable to reach Fahland on Feb. 10. The next day, he called the hospital and was told she had given birth. Wyatt went to the hospital but was told neither Fahland nor her baby was there. Wyatt alleges in court documents Fahland was sneaked out of the hospital and booked into a hotel under an alias.

Wyatt hired an attorney and on Feb. 12 — the same day Fahland signed away her parental rights — hand-delivered a letter asking that he be allowed to visit her and the child. Wyatt was told the only way he would be permitted to see the baby was if he agreed to the adoption. Wyatt's attorney replied he would "oppose any adoption adamantly."

On Feb. 18, eight days after Emma's birth, Wyatt filed for custody in Virginia — though Jenkins disputes that date. Five days later, on Feb. 23, the Zarembinskis began adoption proceedings in Utah.

From that point on, custody proceedings unfolded in Utah and Virginia. In Utah, a judge found Wyatt had no right to intervene and gave the Zarembinskis temporary custody of Emma. In Virginia, a judge found Utah courts had no jurisdiction in the case and gave Wyatt temporary custody.

A second Virginia ruling in December, addressing provisions of the kidnapping act, gave Wyatt permanent custody of Emma.

Wyatt's mother, Jeri, says: "John never consented to this and never wanted his child to be given away, and these people always knew it. He has a God-given right to his child."

Joshua Peterman, Wyatt's attorney, said Utah is not unique in having an unwed father's registry — an estimated 20 states maintain such databases — but says its requirements are more onerous.

"These are two kids who were together since middle school," he said. "There was no question to anybody that John wanted to be involved in this child's life."

Jenkins acknowledges that a father who lives in another state may not be aware of Utah law but even so claims he has to follow the law in his own state — and Wyatt didn't.

"The court here said he didn't do what he needed to do and that should be binding on him," he said, adding the kidnapping act doesn't apply in the case.

Utah's statute favors a birth mother's right to make decisions for her child, Jenkins said. It also favors what is in a child's best interest over rights of unmarried fathers "unless that unmarried father steps up and does certain things."

"The kind of situation you've got when you have a girl who is saying she wants to place a child for adoption and a birth father who says he doesn't want you to do that — you already have a relationship that is probably not a good relationship," Jenkins said. "This gives mom a choice to place the baby in a good situation."

But Virginia requires that a known father be given notice of an adoption proceeding and a court there found Wyatt did act to protect his paternal rights.

Wyatt said Fahland now regrets her decision, while Jenkins said the right choices have been made for Emma.

"You've got a child who has two loving parents who have done an outstanding job with her," Jenkins said of the Zarembinskis, who he said weren't doing interviews. "She is attached to them." —

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