State appeals twin girls' adoption by N.J. man

State appeals twin girls' adoption by N.J. man
At issue is whether infants born to surrogate were 'hard to place'

By Kevin Corcoran
kevin.corcoran@indystar.com
January 21, 2007

Months after a Hamilton County judge decided in closed court to allow an unmarried New Jersey man to adopt twin girls over the objection of child welfare officials, the state is appealing the decision.

The state's notice to the Indiana Court of Appeals indicates officials will challenge whether the blond, blue-eyed girls, born six weeks early to a surrogate mother at Methodist Hospital in April 2005, had special needs making them hard to place.

That's a requirement before residents of other states can adopt in Indiana.

Attorneys for the Indiana Department of Child Services say the adoptions also violated interstate laws meant to ensure that children adopted across state lines end up in safe homes, according to the court filings, which the appeals court clerk has refused to publicly release.

James W. Payne, Indiana's top child-welfare official, acknowledged he authorized appealing the adoptions by Stephen F. Melinger, 60, Union City, N.J.

"We think there are issues that are significant to the business of child welfare and child safety," Payne said.

Payne declined to answer any specific questions, citing warnings from Hamilton Superior Court Judge William J. Hughes to the parties involved not to discuss the adoptions. Payne said he was worried about being found in contempt if he says too much.

Melinger's attorney, Steven C. Litz, filed an emergency motion in Hamilton County last week seeking a hearing on whether parties in the case should be held in contempt for violating confidentiality orders.

Litz's motion also asked for an emergency restraining order against The Indianapolis Star prohibiting it "from publishing further articles relating to this matter, including the filing of this motion." Hughes denied that motion Thursday.

Litz, whose company, Monrovia-based Surrogate Mothers Inc., advertises for clients, surrogates and egg donors on the Internet, declined comment.

Melinger did not return a phone call to his New Jersey home this past week. After taking a leave of absence to adopt the girls in Indiana, he is back at Roosevelt Elementary School in Union City as an instructor, according to the school's Web site.

Neighbors interviewed Friday said that more than six months ago Melinger moved out of a tiny apartment carved out of a turn-of-the-century wood-frame house, saying he needed more room for the twins to satisfy the adoption court.

Before the move, neighbor Edwin Estrada said, Melinger, who lived alone, often would leave the children in the care of his landlord, Miriam Mantilla. William Alvarez, owner of Willy's Grocery, a bodega across the street, described Melinger as a polite customer who mostly kept to himself; he said he has not seen Melinger since the move.

Hughes, the Hamilton County judge who gave Melinger custody of the now 21-month-old twins, Karen Zaria and Kathy Zee, declined comment.

Questions led to probe

As reported first in The Star in July 2005, court records show Melinger hired a 23-year-old woman, Zaria N. Huffman, then of Laurel Bay, S.C., through Litz's Surrogate Mothers firm to carry the babies.

Huffman flew to Indianapolis to give birth. Melinger drove from New Jersey to pick up the girls. Litz traveled nearly 50 miles from Morgan County to have Hughes approve the adoption paperwork in Noblesville. No one associated with the case has any connection with Hamilton County, where Hughes' court is located.

But the adoptions, approved in 21 days, ran into trouble after Marion County officials opened a child welfare investigation.

Melinger had raised concerns among hospital staff by showing up in Methodist's neonatal intensive-care unit to visit the newborns with a live bird in the left sleeve of his suit jacket and, later, bird feces on his clothing.

Nurses also were concerned that he did not seem to know how to care for the children and planned to drive them back to New Jersey by himself.

Marion County officials also uncovered inconsistencies in the adoption paperwork. For instance, Huffman, who is black, was identified as the girls' biological mother. The girls are white.

Melinger was identified as the biological father in a home study, while other adoption paperwork stated Melinger's sperm had been mixed with that of an anonymous donor. Litz later told The Star that Melinger was not the father, which was why Melinger had to adopt.

Litz acknowledged it was possible an egg donor had been used. If that were the case, adoption releases should have been filed with Hughes' court by the egg donor and the other sperm donor; none was filed.

Court records also show the adoptions were approved in April 2005 despite the absence of a legally required study of Melinger's New Jersey home or a period of preadoption supervision by an Indiana-licensed agency.

Marion Superior Court Judge Marilyn A. Moores, who was then overseeing Melinger's child welfare case, voiced concerns about the adoption to the U.S. attorney's office. She also made public the Melinger child welfare case file, citing public policy questions raised by the adoptions.

The FBI and Indiana State Police opened preliminary inquiries into Litz and his company that did not result in criminal investigations, spokesmen for both agencies said.

Within days of the initial report in 2005 by The Star on the Melinger adoptions, Hughes reopened the adoption case and appointed a court employee, Shelley Hiles Haymaker, as guardian for the Melinger children.

Haymaker and her Westfield attorney, Timothy Stoesz, immediately sought to close the Marion County case, saying the ensuing publicity could harm the children later in life.

It's unusual for judges to appoint directors of taxpayer-financed temporary guardianship programs who work directly for them, such as Haymaker, to represent children in cases before their courts, a state court official said.

"I won't say it doesn't happen, but it wouldn't be preferred," said Leslie Dunn, state director of Indiana's guardian ad litem and court-appointed special advocate programs for children. "It creates the appearance of being less than objective."

Stoesz, the attorney representing Haymaker, said he and his client would not discuss the case with The Star.

Hughes was granted sole jurisdiction over the Melinger adoption and child welfare cases in late 2005. He ended the involvement of competing guardians appointed by Marion County's juvenile court. After a series of closed hearings, Hughes issued a new adoption decree awarding the twins to Melinger last year.

The state's case

State court officials have refused The Star's requests to make public filings in the state's appeal, citing confidentiality laws governing adoption records.

But someone who has seen the records said child welfare authorities have asserted that the twins were adopted without it being shown that they had special care needs that would make them eligible for placement out of state. Children with disabilities or special health-care needs typically qualify.

Melinger's attorney has provided conflicting information on that issue. A home study in the adoption that Litz filed stated the girls were "not considered 'hard to place' " as defined by Indiana law. That flawed study involved a visit to Melinger's temporary Indianapolis apartment and not his home in New Jersey.

Litz's position seemed to change in the August 2005 interview with The Star. Litz said then that he thought the girls were biracial and would qualify as hard to place. He acknowledged that would not be the case if it turned out Huffman were not the biological mother.

Later, Indiana child welfare officials asked New Jersey officials to conduct their own study of Melinger's home. It's not clear what that state's findings were or whether New Jersey was aware the Melinger children had moved there. New Jersey child welfare spokeswoman Kate Bernyk said she couldn't comment on the Melinger adoptions.

One of the temporary guardians appointed by Marion County said she was pleased to hear the state is appealing the adoptions.

Cynthia K. Booth, executive director of Indianapolis-based Child Advocates Inc., said a member of her staff regularly observed Melinger's visits with the children for the Marion County juvenile court until the child welfare case was transferred to Hughes' court.

"I'm glad that it was appealed," Booth said. "I think there are some things that need to be reviewed with those adoptions."

Carbon copy?

State officials have said the Melinger case was a "carbon copy" of eight other adoptions Litz filed in Hamilton County arising from surrogate births.

Those adoptions also failed to abide by the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, a contract among the states requiring child welfare officials in sending and receiving states to sign off on adoptions that cross state lines, Payne said in a 2005 interview.

Payne confirmed recently that Indiana had notified child welfare authorities in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia of those adoptions so they could take additional action, if warranted.

Preadoption home studies involving the prospective parents in those eight cases were conducted in temporary Indiana homes or apartments and not in the states where the children were headed, Payne said in 2005.

The home studies were conducted by a woman hired by Litz, the same woman who handled the Melinger home study in Indianapolis.

Litz and Hughes are acquainted through more than 15 years of court cases and their work for a pro bono legal services nonprofit. In an interview with The Star on June 30, 2005, in his Noblesville judicial chambers, Hughes said Litz had filed "maybe three, four, five" adoptions in his court -- "no more than maybe 10 a year."

Hughes said then that he wasn't sure why Litz drives from his law office in Morgan County southwest of Indianapolis to appear before him in Hamilton County.

Indiana adoption law does not limit jurisdiction, allowing lawyers to file adoption petitions before judges of their choosing.

"I wouldn't dream of trying to guesstimate or estimate what Steve's motivation may be in where he chooses to file a case," Hughes said.

During that interview, Hughes also declined to comment specifically on Melinger's adoptions, except to suggest that he might not have had all of the facts before him the first time he approved the adoptions.

"Lots of folks assume judges have more information than we have, but we only have the information that is given to us," Hughes said in the interview, which was taped at his request.

Hughes did not cite examples, but the initial petition for adoption that Litz filed on behalf of Melinger stated that Melinger was born in Indiana and lived in Indianapolis.

However, a home study Litz filed as part of the adoption case stated Melinger was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and planned to return to New Jersey -- an account supported by New Jersey records.

After the initial Melinger case, Hughes said he tightened procedures for handling adoptions in his Hamilton County courtroom. Hughes would not confirm that the changes were related to the Melinger case.

"We're not starting to review papers we didn't before," Hughes said during the nearly two-hour interview in June 2005. "We're adding an additional level of review. Two sets of eyes are always better than one."

Call Star reporter Kevin Corcoran at (317) 444-2750.

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