Baby's birth father is given temporary custody
Deseret News, The (Salt Lake City, UT)
Author: Amy K. Stewart Deseret Morning News
AMERICAN FORK -- An American Fork couple isn't sure what they will do now that an Idaho judge has ruled the birth father of their adopted baby son Harvey will have temporary primary custody of the infant.
The birth father, Matt Tenneson, 20, of Coeur d'Alene, could be picking up the baby from adoptive parents Jed and Cally Nielson within just a few days. The Nielsons have been raising Harvey since his birth in June.
"We're absolutely devastated," said Cally Nielson, 24, of American Fork.
She was in tears as she spoke in a phone interview with the Deseret Morning News from her home on Tuesday afternoon.
Kootenai County District Court Judge Barry E. Watson ruled Tuesday that Tenneson would have temporary primary custody while the birth mother, Cammie Knight, 19, of Coeur d'Alene, would have some visitation, such as when Tenneson is at work. He is employed by Hollywood Video in Coeur d'Alene.
LDS Family Services has filed an appeal regarding an Idaho judge's earlier ruling in favor of the birth father's rights. But for now, baby Harvey will remain with Tenneson.
"My heart is breaking," Cally Nielson said. "I'm scared for my little boy. How can anyone do this to a child?"
Nielson said she and her husband Jed, 26, are talking to their attorney about what steps to take. She said they don't have plans to sue LDS Family Services.
She said they they have spent $25,000 so far on legal fees in hiring attorneys in both Idaho and Utah.
The Utah couple adopted Harvey in June. A couple of weeks later Tenneson contested the adoption.
When attempts were made to contact him at his home number Tuesday, Tenneson's mother said the family is not commenting on the case.
Cammie Knight, the birth mother, in a phone interview from Coeur d'Alene, said she was in a state of shock and disbelief after the judge's ruling Tuesday.
Knight said the judge stated during his ruling that Tenneson was receiving primary custody because Knight's parents are hostile toward Tenneson.
According to Tuesday's court transcripts, Watson said, "It seems Matthew is amenable to learning to be a father. My heart goes out to the Nielsons. Hopefully, (the custody transfer) is done in the least traumatic way."
Knight says she believes Tenneson's mother is the driving force behind the birth father's battle for the baby -- and that the new grandmother will be the one mainly caring for the baby.
The birth mother said she hasn't changed her mind about adopting out her baby -- and she wants the Nielsons to have baby Harvey.
"I still believe adoption was the right thing for my baby son," Knight said. "They (the Tennesons) are taking the baby from a loving, caring couple and will be throwing him into two separate lives that are completely strange to him.
"It is going to traumatize the baby," she said.
Knight said the relationship between her and Matt Tenneson became strained when she was pregnant and they didn't communicate during the last few months of her pregnancy.
Knight said during this time Tenneson had the option to fill out forms if he wanted to declare his paternal rights. He also could have gone to the hospital when the baby was born and filed a declaration of paternity. Knight said Tenneson did neither.
It isn't known how long it could take the appeal by LDS Family Services to go through the court system.
Scott Trotter, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church is reserving comment on the adoption case "until all legal processes are completely resolved."
Idaho Falls attorney Kent Foster, who is handling the appeal in Idaho for LDS Family Services, said, "It's a heart-wrenching case."
Foster, with Holden, Kidwell, Hahn & Crapo in Idaho Falls, has 40 years law experience in adoption cases.
Foster said Tuesday that although he was just officially assigned to the case that morning and is only beginning to study the details, he questions whether an Idaho judge was correct when he ruled that Tenneson has rights as the birth father.
And he said he believes the baby should be kept with the Nielsons as the appeal goes through the system.
Also, Foster questions whether Tenneson can simply take the baby from the Nielsons.
"You can't just go to Utah and take a baby," he said. "It has to go through the court proceedings in Utah."
Foster says he believes LDS Family Services wasn't in the wrong for adopting out baby Harvey. LDS Family Services may have attempted to contact the birth father and not been successful. But Foster points out it isn't up to the agency to contact the birth father.
"The law doesn't require LDS Family Services to do a thing," Foster said. "The birth mother doesn't even have to disclose the name of the birth father."
Foster says he will go to the Idaho Supreme Court to attempt to reverse the earlier ruling on the birth father's rights, as well as Tuesday's custody ruling.
"Under Idaho law, an unmarried biological father has no constitutional rights unless he establishes his rights," Foster said. "He has an opportunity to do this. But he has no rights until he establishes them."
Further, Foster says, Idaho law doesn't simply require a birth father to sign documents in order to declare paternity. The birth father must also be involved and supportive financially and emotionally during the pregnancy and after.
Under Idaho statute, "it's arguably too late" for Tenneson, Foster said.