Sonya custody case drags on as another birthday passes
by Brian Haas
Five years of legal wrangling and blistering social media spats and this is what anyone has to show for it: Sonya McCaul, who celebrated her 10th birthday on Friday, is still technically in state custody.
The years-long battle for Sonya, a girl raised by foster parents in Dickson until a court earlier this year ordered her returned to her biological father in Omaha, Neb., has still not been fully settled. The Tennessee Department of Children's Services has legal custody of her while she stays with her biological father, John McCaul, in Omaha on a trial basis. The foster parents who raised her while McCaul was in federal prison, David and Kim Hodgin, continue to try to terminate his parental rights.
Despite all the attention paid to the case — which has tapped into the kind of raw emotions that often accompany custody cases, amplified by the uniqueness of the dilemma — they are running out of options.
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More: Dickson judge rules Sonya to stay in Nebraska
Two independent observers versed in family law issues say that under the law, Sonya is where she should be: With her father. And both say the chances of her going back to her foster parents in Tennessee are slim because the rights of biological parents, absent actual abuse or neglect, are nearly impossible to take away.
While a defamation suit filed by McCaul was recently dismissed, the battle continues in court. Sonya's case is scheduled to return to a Dickson County courtroom July 30 for a discussion of her progress in Nebraska. The Hodgins are still awaiting the outcome of their petition to terminate McCaul's parental rights and to formally adopt Sonya. They're also still trying to appeal an earlier ruling by a juvenile court judge keeping Sonya in Nebraska, and last week they asked Gov. Bill Haslam to step in on their behalf, which he has not done.
And the war wages on Twitter, Facebook and forums by various "rights" groups, whether it be foster parents' rights, adoptive parents' rights, biological parents' rights or the "men's-rights" movement. Supporters wielding hashtags like #BringSonyaHome and #SonyaIsHome trade accusations daily.
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Even DCS has waded in with a thinly-veiled criticism of the Hodgin family in a July 16 Facebook post.
"All foster parents are required to sign these agreements as a condition of being foster parents in good standing," the post reads. "We also remind the public that attorneys representing SM have told the Dickson County Juvenile Court how humiliating it has been for SM to have her story made into national headlines. Children need their privacy protected."
A national tug-of-war
How did a 10-year-old girl become the object of a national tug-of-war?
A 2009 Tennessee Court of Appeals case spells out the tangled timeline of Sonya's life.
She was born in 2004 in Nebraska. Her mother wasn't in the picture. Her father asked a family friend to act as a caregiver in 2005, before he was arrested and charged with unlawful transport of a weapon. That caregiver, Jennifer Gunn, asked McCaul if she could take Sonya with her to Dickson County in Tennessee because of an ailing relative.
Once there, Sonya was quickly put into DCS custody as questions were raised about McCaul's background. She was largely cared for by the Hodgin family, who are friends with Gunn.
In 2006, McCaul was arrested and convicted by the feds. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Meanwhile, the Hodgin family filed paperwork to terminate McCaul's parental rights and adopt Sonya, citing abandonment. In 2008, a Dickson County judge terminated McCaul's rights and allowed the Hodgins to adopt Sonya.
But a year later, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the adoption and termination of McCaul's parental rights, saying that the abandonment issue wasn't properly argued at the time. Meanwhile, McCaul's sentence was reduced from 15 years to 7.5 because of his cooperation in an unrelated homicide case.
McCaul was released from prison in 2012. Since then, he's been in a pitched battle with the Hodgin family for custody of Sonya. A judge in January of this year ordered Sonya to be returned to her father in Nebraska, which is where she's been ever since.
The fierce legal argument
Both sides paint the battle in the starkest terms. One side questions how the state could force a young girl to go back to a convicted felon she didn't know. The other questions what right a foster family has to ask for custody, much less try to make its case in local and national media.
Melanie Lane, a Jamestown attorney who regularly handles custody issues and who has no connection to the Sonya case, said U.S. law puts biological parents' rights first unless there's some evidence of actual abuse or neglect. She said it's unlikely the Hodgins will prevail.
"Parental rights are jealously guarded by the court. These foster parents have standing to be involved in the case, because they have a relationship with the girl, but they don't really have any rights to her," Lane said. "I don't think there's much likelihood unless the dad does something to put the child at risk."
Gerald Papica, ombudsman with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, is tasked with monitoring DCS and has been an outspoken critic when he's seen mistakes. He agreed to review Sonya's full, confidential case file and said that DCS had acted appropriately. And he said that, despite McCaul's criminal history, he agrees with Lane.
"The thing is, as foster parents, they're protecting the child, they're nurturing the child, but at the same time the foster parents are expected to release the child when the time is right," Papica said. "There was nothing against him that he mistreated this child. He has the ultimate right."
'The way the system works'
That hasn't deterred the Hodgin family.
"The setbacks that we've had are the way the system works," David Hodgin said by phone Tuesday, before taping a segment about Sonya on ABC's "The View." "I'm really optimistic right now and will continue to be. I really and truly believe that at some point, now that we're in a higher court, that some grown adults will see the light."
Kendall Sykes, attorney for the Hodgins, said their position is that McCaul did neglect Sonya.
"The law of Tennessee is clear his superior parental rights are no longer presumed at that point," she said in a statement. "The law is also quite clear that Sonya is entitled to a best interest hearing."
McCaul didn't respond to a message left on his cell phone. He's generally shied away from media attention.
But his attorney, Lynn Coffinberry, said the Hodgins don't have a case.
"I'm not sure what they're trying to get to. I think they want us to have some kind of comparison between the foster parents and the father and I've never seen that," she said. "That's not what happens."
Besides, she said, Sonya has told a court-appointed attorney and guardian that she is happy with her father in Nebraska.
Papica, the DCS watchdog, said he hopes the focus stays right there, on how the battle has affected Sonya.
"It's just unfortunate that this case got into the national limelight and now society seems to be making the situation worse with all the attention," he said.
Reach Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 and on Twitter @brianhaas.
Timeline of events:
July 18, 2004: Sonya is born to John McCaul in Omaha, Neb.
2005: McCaul enlists Jennifer Gunn to be Sonya's caregiver. With McCaul's permission, she takes her to visit an ailing relative in Dickson County, Tenn. Once there, Gunn refuses to return Sonya to McCaul.
Oct. 5, 2005: The Dickson County Juvenile Court puts Sonya under DCS custody. She is placed in the home of Gunn's mother, but stays with David and Kimberly Hodgin most of the time.
April 20, 2006: McCaul is indicted on two federal counts of unlawful transport of a weapon by a felon.
July 3, 2006: The Hodgins petition to terminate the rights of McCaul and to legally adopt Sonya, alleging she had been abandoned.
Jan. 31, 2007: McCaul is sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for a weapons charge.
Nov. 6, 2008: The Dickson County Chancery Court terminates McCaul's parental rights and grants the Hodgin family's adoption of Sonya.
Nov. 20, 2009: The Tennessee Court of Appeals reverses the termination of McCaul's rights and the adoption.
Oct. 26, 2012: McCaul is released from federal prison.
Jan. 21, 2014: McCaul sues to regain full custody of Sonya.
Jan. 29, 2014: The Dickson County Juvenile Court rules that Sonya should be returned to McCaul. DCS removes her from the Hodgin family.
May 16, 2014: The Dickson County Juvenile Court rules Sonya should stay with McCaul. The Hodgin family appeals.