Letter asks for baby Harvey back
Amy K. Stewart
Deseret Morning News
AMERICAN FORK — The American Fork family embroiled in a custody battle over their adopted baby has received a letter from the biological father's attorney that politely requests they give the baby back.
During a court hearing last week, an Idaho judge gave the birth father, Matt Tenneson, 20, of Coeur d'Alene, temporary primary custody of the 5 1/2-month-old baby.
But Jed and Callie Nielson, who have had the baby since June, say they won't give baby Harvey back without a legal fight. In fact, they say they are thinking optimistically and have been buying Christmas presents for the baby.
"We plan to celebrate Christmas with Harvey and be grateful for every day we have him," said Callie Nielson.
"We're just going to keep fighting," she said.
The Nielsons are now being represented by adoption attorney Larry Jenkins, with Wood Crapo LLC, of Salt Lake City.
Jenkins, who graduated from Brigham Young University's law school in 1986, has handled thousands of adoptions for families in Utah and other states.
He also is chairman of the Utah Adoption Council's legislative committee, which works with the Utah Legislature to improve adoption legislation in Utah.
Jenkins said he is reviewing the case and working on strategy.
"It's early in the game," he said.
On Monday, Jenkins said the letter from Tenneson's attorney was an introductory statement, letting him know that Tenneson had hired an attorney in Utah in addition to his attorney in Idaho.
The Nielsons said there was no deadline stated in the letter for the baby to be returned. Jenkins said the letter, which arrived over the weekend, "made no strong demands."
"It doesn't change our direction or our focus," he said. "Our goal is to keep the little boy with the Nielsons."
LDS Family Services, which handled the Nielsons' adoption, is appealing the custody issue to the Idaho Supreme Court. LDS Family Services has employed Idaho Falls adoption attorney Kent Foster.
As an agency, LDS Family Services is reserving public comment until after the court case is resolved.
Kootenai County District Court judges have ordered documents pertaining to the Tenneson case to be sealed due to the high-profile nature of the case, court clerks said Friday.
The birth mother, Cammie Knight, 19, of Coeur d'Alene, says Tenneson didn't sign papers she gave him declaring his paternal rights, and he also didn't sign up with Idaho's "putative father" registry. A putative father is a man who may be the child's biological father but who is not married to the child's mother on or before the date of the child's birth and has not established his paternity through legal proceedings.
Knight said she hadn't had contact with Tenneson since she was about 7 months pregnant. She gave birth June 24.
Shortly after her baby's birth, Knight signed papers to offer her baby for adoption and appeared in court to go through with the adoption proceedings. However, Tenneson's attorney showed up to the routine hearing to state that his client was contesting the adoption, according to Knight's attorney, Kacey Wall.
"No one expected this," Wall said. "It was a routine placement."
In a later court hearing, Idaho Magistrate Robert Burton ruled Tenneson did, indeed, have some rights as the birth father.
"In my opinion," Wall says, "he got the statute wrong."
LDS Family Services filed a motion asking Burton to reconsider, but Burton stuck with his original ruling.
LDS Family Services then appealed to Kootenai County District Judge John Mitchell, asking to have baby Harvey stay with the Nielsons until the custody issue was worked out. Mitchell ruled against that request but said he would expedite the appeal being made by LDS Family Services.
This appeal, led by Foster, is seeking to overturn Burton's ruling that stated Tenneson had some parental rights.
The Nielsons want to keep baby Harvey at their home during the appeal process.
Then came a big blow to the Nielsons: Idaho Magistrate Barry E. Watson ruled that Tenneson would have temporary primary custody of Harvey while the birth mother, Knight, would have some visitation. She can take the baby to her home during the day, such as when Tenneson is at work.
Wall said Watson ruled as he did because he believed that the Tenneson house would be a good home base for the baby.
"Matt had a whole nursery ready," Wall said. "He said he had signed up for some parenting classes and is reading child-development books."
Wall says LDS Family Services wasn't in the wrong in placing baby Harvey with the Nielsons last summer.
"Nobody had heard from Matt," Wall said.
Under Idaho law, the adoption agency or attorney must check with the Idaho putative father registry before going through with the adoption, she said.
"LDS Family Services did that," Wall said. "He was not on there. That is as far as they needed to go."
When contacted Monday, Tenneson declined to comment on why he wants custody of the baby. Knight says she believes Tenneson's mother is the driving force behind the fights for custody.
Jenkins says, according to documents he obtained, that Tenneson registered with Idaho's putative father registry on July 17 — after the legal deadline.
"There is no disputing he didn't register on time," Jenkins said, adding he doesn't see how an Idaho judge could rule Tenneson had some parental rights when he had missed the deadline.
Wall agrees, saying that as the appeal by LDS Family Services goes through the court system, the question will be how Idaho law is being enforced.
"We need to know if Judge Burton was wrong, or if the law needs to be changed," she said. "We need to know. All of Idaho needs to know."