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A birth father's four-year battle for custody of his daughter will now move to a Colorado court after a Utah judge agreed Wednesday to dismiss the child's adoption.
Third District Judge Paul Maughan said he wants to review the landmark Utah Supreme Court ruling that sent Colorado resident Rob Manzanares' case back to the lower court but, barring any obstacles, will sign an order dismissing the adoption, which had not been finalized. That will allow a Colorado court to fully take over the dispute. Maughan also ordered that Manzanares' name be added to his daughter's birth certificate.
Manzanares, who has fought for his right to parent his daughter since before her birth in 2008, broke down in tears outside the courtroom at the prospect of soon being reunited with her.
"It's just a step closer to getting to see my girl I've been fighting for for so long and I just can't wait to hold her and bring her home where she belongs, with her family," said Manzanares of his daughter, who will remain with her prospective adoptive parents for now.
While the Colorado judge has agreed to put the case on a fast track, Manzanares still has a legal fight ahead of him.
The child's adoptive parents, relatives of the birth mother, have asked the Colorado judge to terminate Manzanares' parental rights. Carie Terry, the birth mother, also has filed a conditional motion requesting that her parental rights be terminated in Colorado but only after Manzanares' rights are terminated. Terry's rights were already terminated in Utah as part of the adoption proceeding here.
Despite that, Manzanares is optimistic the end line is near.
"I believe Colorado will do what's right and make a determination of the best interests of my daughter," he said. "No other father should have to go through this and, more importantly, no child should have to go through this. I've been asked by many fathers for help and assistance. My biggest thing for them is just be very patient and don't give up hope and keep fighting and do it in a peaceful manner."
Attorney Larry Jenkins, who represents the prospective adoptive parents, and attorney David Harding, who represents the birth mother, declined comment after the hearing. The prospective adoptive father also declined comment.
But the tension between the parties was evident as they filed into the courtroom for the hearing when the prospective adoptive father attempted to push Manzanares on the shoulder but ended up pushing Elizabeth Manzanares, his mother and called him a "perjurer."
"I don't know why," Manzanares said. "He's a little upset with me. I have no hard feelings. I hope nothing but the best for them. I just want my daughter back and I'm willing to whatever I can and whatever I need to do to get her back into my arms."
In a split decision, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in January that Manzanares was improperly denied a say in his daughter's adoption, with the majority finding he could not have known Terry planned to give birth and place the baby for adoption in Utah due to numerous misleading and false statements she made about her intentions.
In fact, Terry stated in a court filing in a paternity action Manzanares filed in Colorado before the baby's birth that she had no such plan. Terry gave birth in Utah on Feb. 17, 2008, and appeared in 3rd District Court three days later to relinquish her parental rights; she informed the Colorado court that same day she could not attend a hearing because she was still in Utah visiting a sick relative.
In a subsequent hearing, a Utah judge found Terry had deliberately deceived him and concealed relevant information from judges in Utah and Colorado but allowed the adoption to proceed after ruling that Manzanares had not acted in time to protect his rights under Utah's stringent statutory deadlines.
In its decision the Utah Supreme Court said it was returning the case to the lower court to determine whether Manzanares met Colorado requirements for establishing paternal rights and shown a full commitment to his parental responsibilities questions the Colorado court will now decide.
The decision spotlighted problems birth fathers face in Utah and offers some direction for lower court judges, said Jennifer Reyes, Manzanares' Utah attorney.
"I believe that birth fathers who are willing to step up to the plate and parent their children should be given an opportunity," Reyes said after Wednesday's hearing. "Before she was even born, he was saying to everyone, 'Hello, I'm here, I want to have custody of my daughter, I want to take care of her, I want to love her.'"
Other biological fathers are carefully watching what happens in the case. Jake Strickland, who lives in South Jordan, and Bobby Nevares of Colorado, who also are contesting adoption of their biological children, gathered outside the courtroom Wednesday to support Manzanares.
"It's not fair that he would have to come here and be by himself when there are so many other guys who are going through the same thing," said Strickland, who has renewed his effort to intervene in the adoption of his son, born in 2010.
Added Nevares, whose son was also born in 2010 and placed for adoption in Utah: "It's not just a one-man fight. Showing our support to him gives him the courage to keep going with it. It gives me a lot of hope to see that somebody is going to keep going as far as he has gone."