SALT LAKE CITY - A Virginia man is challenging Utah's controversial adoption laws in a bid to get custody of his 18-month-old daughter, whom he has never met. John Wyatt took his case before the Utah Supreme Court on Thursday, arguing that his parental rights were usurped.
"It's unjust, unconstitutional," Wyatt told Fox 13 outside of court. "They're completely not fair. They don't give a father a fighting chance. How is a father supposed to know he's supposed to register in Utah when he lives all the way across the country?"
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A judge in Virginia granted Wyatt custody of his child, whom he named "Emma." But a court in Utah granted custody to the baby's adoptive parents. On Thursday, the Utah Supreme Court peppered lawyers for both sides with questions about who has jurisdiction.
"Where does Virginia get the power to tell Utah it can't enter into an adoption agreement?" Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee asked.
Wyatt claims he asserted his parental rights to Emma shortly after his ex-girlfriend gave birth to her last year. The child's mother, he said, now regrets her decision to place the baby up for adoption. But lawyers for A Act of Love, the adoption agency that placed the child with a Utah family, said he waited too long to step into the case.
Utah law does place limits on how long a biological father has to intervene in an adoption.
"In many respects, the adoptive parents have been the victims of Mr. Wyatt's belated challenge to the adoption of their child, who is now very much a part of their family," said Larry Jenkins, an attorney for the couple.
Utah laws are considered notorious for their friendliness to adoptive parents. Critics have claimed that they are stacked against biological parents, specifically biological fathers. Outside the Supreme Court chambers on Thursday, Jenkins was confronted by relatives of another child placed for adoption.
"You don't have any sympathy for what you're doing?" Tanya O'Dea asked him. "How do you sleep at night?"
In a statement issued to Fox 13 through their lawyers, Emma's adoptive family asked for privacy.
"The birth mother made the difficult and courageous choice to place the child with the adoptive parents because she believed that the child deserved a loving, stable, two-parent home," the statement said.
"Both the adoptive parents and the adoption agency believe it would be extremely detrimental to remove the child from the loving and stable home she has enjoyed for 19 months. Their primary concern has and always will be the best interests of the child."
A ruling by the Utah Supreme Court is not expected for several months. Wyatt, who said he has never held his daughter and only has photos of her, would not rule out an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if he loses. He called it a "kidnapping."
"They know that they did something horribly wrong," Wyatt said. "They stole a man's child.