Birth parents' battle: Custody dispute is costly in money and emotion

Karen Bouffard

January 16, 2009 / The Detroit News

ECORSE-- For most of his short life, he answered to two names, called two couples Mom and Dad, was schooled in two religions and lived in two cities.

But by a court ruling Christmas Eve, the twin identities of 5-year-old Cody Barnett were narrowed to one.

Kenneth Barnett and Christine Wolfe of Ecorse learned Dec. 24 that the state Court of Appeals sided with them in a nearly five-year battle for their birth son Cody -- a battle that cost them their savings, their home and precious years with their child

But the decision devastated Phillip and Phyllis Unthank of Dearborn, prospective adoptive parents who had custody of the boy since his birth but lost it last February when Barnett and Wolfe were granted full custody. The Unthanks have until Feb. 4 to decide whether to take their battle to the state Supreme Court. Birmingham attorney John F. Mills said this week they have not yet decided whether to file a leave to appeal.

"My mom and dad won me. They blocked my (other) name," Cody said about the family's trip to Caesarland, a kids pizza joint and playground, after the ruling.

Asked if he misses the Unthanks, he replied, "A little bit."

Advocates laud the ruling, which underscores parents' constitutional rights to raise children regardless of their circumstances as long as they are fit. They say birth parents frequently give up or lose such battles because adoptive parents typically have more money to spend on qualified representation and extended court fights. But adoptive parents and their supporters sympathize with the Unthanks, and say courts sometimes favor birth parents over the best interests of the child.

"I would like to say a lot, but I don't want Duane, Cody, whoever -- that sweet little boy -- put in the middle of this," said Phyllis Unthank, 51, who refused to comment further on the case.

Child advocates on both sides say this case -- marked by lengthy delays, jurisdictional wrangling and questionable rulings -- should never have lagged so long in the Wayne County court system. The Court of Appeals ruled both Wayne County's probate and circuit courts erred in the case.

Experts say the case illustrates why Wayne and other counties should have just one court and one judge to decide all of a family's issues, from divorce to custody -- something mandated by state lawmakers in 1996, but which many counties have not fully implemented.

The case mirrors the 1993 "Baby Jessica" case in which Jan and Roberta DeBoer of Washtenaw County were forced to surrender a 2 1/2 -year-old girl they had raised since birth to her biological parents, Cara Clausen and Daniel Schmidt of Iowa.

In both cases, the birth mother initially gave the child to a prospective adoptive couple, and the birth father later came forward to claim custody. The birth parents, in each case, later got back together and united in their fight to reclaim the child. In both cases, the child lived and bonded with the couple who hoped to adopt while the case dragged on in court. But ultimately they lost the child to the birth parents.

In deciding on Cody, the state appeals court cited the Michigan Supreme Court's ruling on Baby Jessica. In both cases, it was determined that the prospective adoptive parents had no claim to the child simply by virtue of the child having resided with them.

Father doubted paternity

Cody's case opens old wounds for Roberta DeBoer, who said she still grieves over parting with the baby she called "Jessica."

"Adoption is a legal term; it has nothing to do with parenting, nothing at all," DeBoer said. "Once you have a baby that you care for day in and day out and you in every right believe that child is yours -- those parents became parents the moment they took that child in their arms."

In Cody's case, the entanglement started even before he was born on Jan. 23, 2003, at Dearborn's Oakwood Hospital, six weeks after his parents' bitter divorce. Wolfe admitted she had strayed from the marriage, and Barnett refused to acknowledge paternity without a DNA test. Wayne County Circuit Judge William Callahan entered a divorce judgment that awarded the two joint legal custody of their older daughter, Samantha, but made no provision for their unborn child.

Wolfe, a hairdresser, was fearful of raising two children as a single parent. But a relative knew the Unthanks, a childless couple anxious to adopt, and urged the adoption as a solution.

The Unthanks took the baby home from the hospital with temporary custody and a written power of attorney to decide his medical care. But genetic testing in February proved Barnett was the father of Cody.

Barnett filed motions for custody in both circuit and probate court and was denied. Meanwhile, the Unthanks were given temporary custody while motions were argued in both courts.

When Cody was about 18 months old, Wolfe revoked her power of attorney and demanded her child back -- but the Unthanks refused. United by common interest, Wolfe and Barnett reunited as a couple. Already parents to Samantha, now 7, they had another daughter, Brooklyn, now 2 years old. They now wanted Cody to join the family.

Jurisdiction in question

The case lagged in part because Wayne County Probate Judge June Blackwell-Hatcher believed Circuit Judge Callahan had jurisdiction of the custody issue, since he had settled the divorce. Callahan disagreed. Both judges ended up hearing some motions in the case. Ultimately, the State Court Administrative Office temporarily named Blackwell-Hatcher to the Circuit Court for the purpose of deciding custody.

"I don't think its very frequent that this kind of rat's nest occurs with this level of confusion, but this case points out general flaws in the system," said University of Michigan law professor Donald Duquette, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

Duquette said the jurisdictional dispute between Callahan and Blackwell-Hatcher wouldn't have happened if the county had a family court division with just one judge handling the divorce, child support, custody and juvenile issues.

Some counties have implemented such courts, but many -- including Wayne -- still have more than one judge involved.

"If there had been one judge, if the circuit judge had taken jurisdiction for the whole case, it wouldn't have gone down this road," Duquette said.

Duquette also said Barnett should have been granted legal custody from the beginning -- and probably would have if he'd had legal representation. Barnett said he didn't have a lawyer until later in the case.

Although Barnett had been in trouble with the law, and even served time in prison for writing a bad check before Cody was born, there was no history of child abuse or neglect.

Callahan defended his decision to turn down Barnett's bid for custody, saying he appeared not to be fit.

"There were questions as to Mr. Barnett's fitness; he didn't respond to a lot of stuff," Callahan said. "Mr. Barnett was not present in court on most dates."

Wolfe and Barnett pooled their resources to hire Ann Arbor attorney Marian Faupel, who represented the birth parents in the Baby Jessica case.

The couple has paid about $30,000 in legal fees. At times, they couldn't make mortgage payments, and their home in Dearborn Heights was foreclosed on. They are in debt for about another $80,000.

"Most people would have lost their child -- that's the tactic," said Wolfe of the many motions and counter-motions brought by the Unthanks. "It's to force you to give up."

In July 2005, the probate judge allowed Wolfe visitation, starting with a few hours a day several days a week.

Visitation was slowly increased until the child was spending half his time with each couple. Thursday evening through Sunday he was Cody Thomas Barnett. Sunday evening to Thursday, he was Duane Farrell Unthank.

That abruptly ended Feb. 20, when Blackwell-Hatcher issued her decision granting full custody to Wolfe. Cody hasn't seen the Unthanks since, and knows the Dec. 24 ruling means he never may again. He's now known simply as Cody Barnett.

Asked which name he liked better, Cody or Duane, he said, "I liked them both the same."

You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206 or


this made me nauseous...

SHAME on those people!  How dare they do this to a little boy?  The courts having two judges involved made this a travesty!
But I will say:  we have one judge and she is a total ice-bitch with total control and uses her total power to totally destroy families.  So where is the right answer?  Power corrupts; total power corrupts totally.
Teddy says, GRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

two judges,,big deal There

two judges,,big deal

There is a KS couple in a custody battle with Scott and Karen Banks in Utah, and it is so corrupt out there that they had FIVE(5) district judges!

The KS couple is appealing and that adds three more judges for a total of EIGHT (8) judges.

Talk about corruption in UTAH.

Focus on Children Scott and Karen Banks

Scott and Karen Banks of Focus on Children. Yes, we also heard that there were numerous judges, five sounds right, that is a real raw deal for those KS people who thought justice would be had in Utah, fat chance, first you need to have seperation of Church and state and that aint going to happen in Utah. Those five judges were all biased and unprofessional, imagine giving the Scott and Karen Banks temp. custody of a girl that the Banks had no right to, plus the abandonment that the Banks did to their own adopted children, yeah, right Judge, you do not even deserve to be called a judge. They say it happens that way in Utah,

Adoption Racketeering In Utah

March 3, '09

Orrin Hatch who is one of the senators from Utah demonstrates the absence of the separation of church and state in Utah even in adoption matters. First it's necessary to understand that Senator Hatch is one of the most corrupt senators in the U.S. senate. It's a shame he's allowed to remain in his position.

Specifically Senator Hatch is Mormon and also has his name listed as a "life-member" of Children's Aid Society of Utah. This is the agency where "social worker" Colleen Burnham and agency lawyer as well as Mormon church adoption lawyer David McConkie ripped my only child from my only pregnancy away from me.

After stealing my new-born away from me David McConkie and Colleen Burnham started tracking me. Initially I thought this was to stop me from trying to re-claim custody of my child. Ultimately however I discovered that David McConkie got money, from Colleen Burnham who by then was Treasurer of CAS of Utah, to keep tabs of me.

His affiliation with CAS of Utah and the lure of money are what led Senator Hatch to avail himself to "do favors" for David McConkie, who acted not only as the lawyer for CAS of Utah and Colleen Burnham but also as the principle adoption lawyer for the Mormon church, in their tracking (stalking) of me. Since he could act without being challenged Senator Hatch ultimately illegally accessed all of my federal records and falsified them as a favor to David McConkie. He wanted to discredit me by making me appear as a criminal and mental case.

Reporters in the state's media aid and abet in the perpetuation of Utah's adoption rackets, which are led mostly by David McConkie whom I should add has been a lobbyist for the National Council For Adoption (NCFA) which itself is comprised of mostly Mormon social service agencies and also controls Utah's paternity registry, because they falsify adoption-related stories in Utah's media. No mention ever was made for instance of the lawyer(s) representing Karen and Scott Banks in their criminal proceedings. Though Utah's television and print reporters knew the name(s) of the lawyers representing the Banks' these reporters never included the name of the counsel, as a favor to him.

Lawyers in Utah don't want to hear the protests and complaints of natural mothers like myself because I--and I can't speak for other mothers of adoption child-loss--clearly articulate the tragedies caused by Utah's adoption racketeers like David McConkie, Colleen Burnham, Orrin Hatch and others. So when cases like that of Karen and Scott Banks come to light the lawyers all duck and use Utah's TV and print reporters to keep the heat off themselves. I often say...they're all Mormon. The situation becomes that of Mormons colluding with other Mormons.

My point here is that Karen and Scott Banks are NOT the only adoption racketeers in Utah. It's just that it's going to take more time to bring David McConkie, Colleen Burnham, and Orrin Hatch plus others involved in my (AND my son's adoption tragedy) to justice.

Thank You,
Kathy Caudle
Utah Mother of Adoption Child-Loss

Cody is Home For Good!

Cody Barnett and siblings

The court that allowed these people to tle boy take back the child (Barnet) made a tragic mistake. This little boy now lives in Tennessee and he lives in flea infested homes, flith that is beyond description and has been seen being screamed at and hit by this man. He was made to lead a horse down a black top road during 100 degree temperatures, barefoted on black, hot asfault roads. They have been repeatedly been reported to the DCS in Tennessee and nothing has been done. This is so tragic. This child went from a loving home t one of possible abuse and documented filth. What does it take for this world to understand that these children are in danger!!!!! Please if you care, do something!!!!

Pound Pup Legacy