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Utah high court reverses ruling in adoption case of unwed Colorado dad



The Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday that a Colorado father was improperly denied a say in his infant daughter’s adoption and sent the case back to a lower court for a rehearing.

In a split decision that establishes a new ground rule for future cases, the justices said Robert Manzanares’ consent to any adoption was necessary. The majority held Manzanares did not know and reasonably could not have known that a birth and adoption would take place in Utah, entitling him by law to more time to intervene in the proceedings.

Although Manzanares stated in a paternity petition filed in a Colorado court months before her daughter’s birth that he feared his girlfriend might flee to Utah, those were "yellow flags" and not the same thing as having knowledge of such a plan, the majority said.

Manzanares reasonably relied on Cari Terry’s denials, stated in Colorado court filings, of any intention to come to Utah to give birth and place their baby for adoption, Friday’s opinion noted. He was unaware the child had been born in Utah until several days after the birth mother consented to an adoption, the high court said.

The justices said they were "disavowing" what constitutes notice to an unwed father, as set out in its previous ruling in the 2009 O’Dea case, which involved a Wyoming father.

Based on the difference between belief and knowledge, "it cannot be enough to simply establish that the father had ‘notice’ in the sense of suspicion sufficient to trigger a further inquiry," the high court said.

While Utah’s law does not permit an unwed father to use fraud by the birth mother as a defense for failure to protect his rights, the birth mother’s actions and statements are material in determining what he knew about her plans and when he knew it — and thus whether a qualifying circumstance existed that required him to take legal action with a day of a child’s birth or the birth mother’s consent to adoption.

The majority also ruled that the birth mother’s consent to the adoption was properly upheld by the lower court, an issue Manzanares challenged because a judge’s acceptance of Terry’s consent was subsequently vacated due to her "deceptions and misrepresentations to the courts."

"The district court never questioned that Terry freely and voluntarily signed her consent, only that she did not divulge to the court that Manzanares had filed a paternity action in Colorado," the majority held. Given that, a ruling vacating the judge’s acceptance of the mother’s consent was "legally baseless."

The Utah Supreme Court instructed the district court to hold a hearing to determine whether Manzanares fully complied with Colorado’s requirements for establishing parental rights to his daughter, referred to in court documents as Baby B., and whether he had demonstrated a full commitment to his parental responsibilities.

Manzanares was nearly speechless after learning of the court’s decision.

"It is still an uphill battle but as I’ve said from day one, I won’t stop climbing that mountain until I have [my daughter] in my life," he said. "I’ve missed so much of her life. It is incredible to know that I could be with her soon."

John Hedrick, Manzanares’ Colorado attorney, called the ruling a "step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it is still going to be a tedious process for Rob to achieve his ultimate goal."

Hedrick also said that rather than a rehearing in Utah, the case should be heard in Colorado, where Manzanares lives and where he timely filed to protect his parental rights.

Manzanares and Terry, both Colorado residents, conceived a child in the summer of 2007. Although their relationship ended in August, Manzanares made clear he opposed adoption and would, if necessary, raise the child on his own. Manzanares provided financial support throughout Terry’s pregnancy.

On Jan. 11, 2008, Terry sent Manzanares an email stating she planned to travel to Utah in February to visit her sick father and that she would be willing to sit down and talk to him about "your reconsideration to consent for adoption" in April, although the baby was due in late March.

On Jan. 16, Manzanares filed a paternity action in Colorado, seeking to join any adoption proceeding and telling the court he feared Terry might go to Utah to give birth. In a subsequent court document filed in February, Terry denied any intention to place the child for adoption in Utah and asked the court to terminate Manzanares’ parental rights so an adoption could proceeding in Colorado. She also asked the court to reschedule a hearing set for Feb. 20 because of her planned trip to Utah. The Colorado court refused to do so.

Terry arrived in Utah on Feb. 14, 2008. On Feb. 16, Terry’s brother and sister-in-law, signed a petition to adopt the baby, who was born the next day — approximately six weeks premature. An adoption petition was filed in Utah’s 3rd District Court days later.

Meanwhile, Terry contacted the Colorado court on Feb. 20 and said she would be unable to attend the hearing because she was still in Utah visiting a sick relative. Terry did not disclose that she had given birth or that she had appeared that morning in a Utah court and consented to the adoption.

The Colorado court reset the hearing for March 5 and, believing Terry was still pregnant, appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the infant in court.

Terry returned to Colorado on Feb. 24. A day later, Manzanares learned she had given birth and began calling Colorado hospitals in an attempt to locate his daughter. He also called Terry’s brother, who said only that an attorney would be calling him.

Manzanares requested an emergency hearing in Colorado. On March 3, after a three-day hearing, the Colorado judge granted Manzanares’ paternity petition and ordered that his name be listed on his daughter’s birth certificate. Manzanares then filed a motion in Utah seeking to have the adoption petition dismissed.

During a two-day hearing on that motion, held in July, Terry admitted to "multiple efforts to keep Manzanares in the dark" about her plans to give birth and place the baby for adoption in Utah. Terry also failed to inform judges in each state about what was happening in the different court hearings.

The Utah judge who presided over the trial vacated Terry’s consent because of that deception but then found Manzanares had not properly acted to protect his rights in Utah and his consent was not required, leaving the adoption intact. Manzanares then appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, where he argued that his attempt to intervene in the Utah action was timely since the judge’s acceptance of Terry’s consent had been revoked.

Manzanares also said he qualified for an exception under Utah’s adoption law, which requires an unwed father to take legal action within a day of a birth mother consenting to adoption unless he can show he was unaware the birth and adoption took place here and provided he properly protected his rights in his home state.

In its majority opinion, the court said the lower court had conflated "belief" with "knowledge."

"The evidence in the record sustains only one conclusion — that Manzanares did not know and could not have known of a qualifying circumstance in light of Terry’s deception before she executed her consent to adoption," the court said.

Chief Justice Christine Durham concurred in the majority opinion, adding that in her view although the majority and dissent arrived at different outcomes, both sought to "give full force to the legislature’s intent."

"The legislature may well, as the dissent asserts, have identified maternal privacy and finality in adoptions as primary values," Durham said. "But antecedent to those goals are constitutional rights, inchoate or realized, that all biological parents have in associations with their children."

But Justice Jill Parrish and Associate Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, who is poised to take the helm of the judiciary as chief justice, dissented. In an opinion authored by Parrish, they lambast the majority for "wholly undermining" legislative intent, providing a "tortured" analysis of the law that will disrupt future adoptions, and "disregarding" the findings of a lower court judge and previous Supreme Court opinions.

"We cannot supplant the legislature’s policy choices with our own sense of what is fair," wrote Parrish. "Although the result reached by the majority is defensible on basic fairness grounds, it is entirely at odds with the provisions of the Utah Adoption Act and the policy decisions duly enacted by the Utah legislature."

Parrish accused the majority of now giving unwed fathers "license to be complacent in their rights and then later upset adoptive placements or even final adoptions."

"The majority allows Mr. Manzanares to upset Baby B.’s adoptive placement even though he was indisputably aware that Ms. Terry was considering a Utah adoption but failed to comply with the relatively simple procedures required to perfect his rights."

The majority opinion took issue with Parrish’s view, saying its goal was to give Utah’s adoption act "our best interpretation, giving meaning to each of its provisions in a way that credits the plain language of the statute."

2012 Jan 28