exposing the dark side of adoption
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Baby Sam's father sues adoption agency


The suit says Adoption By Choice secretly sought to remove the father's parental rights by concealing his identity in court filings.


TAMPA -- The biological father of "Baby Sam," the toddler at the heart of an interstate custody fight, sued a Tampa adoption agency and its lawyer Friday, alleging that negligence and false court documents took away his son.

"They have to pay for what they did," said New Port Richey resident Christopher Vietri, who has never seen 21/2-year-old Sam.

"Nobody in this world should have to go through what me and my family are going through with all of this."

Adoption By Choice, which sent Sam to an Alabama couple a few days after his birth, has always contended that it did nothing wrong. The baby's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, told the agency she didn't know who the father was. She told Vietri, her former live-in boyfriend, that the baby had died at birth.

Vietri's suit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, alleges that ABC and attorney Gregory F. Boyer lied, as well.

A few weeks after Sam was born in March 1996, Vietri filed a paternity suit against Gawronski in Pinellas Circuit Court. He suspected that the baby was still alive somewhere and asked the court to give him temporary custody.

When served with the suit, Gawronski showed it to ABC officials, who showed it to Boyer. Neither Boyer nor ABC alerted the Pinellas judge who was hearing the paternity action that they knew where the baby was. Instead, they filed a petition in Hillsborough Circuit Court, seeking to terminate the parental rights of an "unknown father" so that the Alabama adoption could proceed.

Sworn affidavits signed by Boyer and ABC director Debra West asserted they had made "diligent efforts" to determine the name of the unknown father, that the baby was not subject to any litigation and that the birth mother could not name anyone alleged to be the father.

Vietri's suit alleges that Boyer, West and ABC "sought to surreptitiously terminate Vietri's parental rights by concealing his identity in court filings."

Months passed before a Hillsborough judge threw out the termination petition and Vietri won temporary custody of the baby on paper. By then, however, Tuscaloosa, Ala., residents Mark and Tracy Johnson had grown so attached to Sam that they refused to give him up. They and Vietri have been fighting for custody ever since.

"If (ABC and Boyer) had just contacted me in the beginning, none of this would have happened," Vietri said. "They just can't get away with it."

West deferred questions to Boyer, who said neither he nor the agency deliberately harmed Vietri.

"I feel very sorry for Mr. Vietri. He has been victimized by Natasha Gawronski from the get-go," Boyer said. "But we will defend ourselves on these charges."

Meanwhile, in Alabama, the Johnsons are suing ABC in federal court for $9-million in actual and punitive damages. During litigation over Sam, the suit says, ABC offered to swap him for another child.

The Johnsons "have endured much mental anguish and emotional distress not only over the legal proceedings that have occurred, but also the possibility of losing or swapping their son," their suit says.

In addition, the Johnsons' suit alleges that ABC charged $10,400 for birth mother expenses that the agency did not, in fact, spend on Gawronski.

Boyer denied that the agency charged any false expenses.

Both the Hillsborough suit and the Alabama suit focus on ABC's efforts to find Vietri. Florida law usually requires a father to consent to adoption unless the agency can't find him. As required by law, ABC did run newspaper advertisements for any "unknown father" who might want to contest the adoption. But the ads ran in a small Tampa newspaper, even though Gawronski and Vietri both lived in Pinellas. Vietri has since moved from Palm Harbor to New Port Richey.

Had ABC interviewed Gawronski's family and friends or checked her medical records, that "would have revealed Christopher Vietri," said his Clearwater attorney, Lawrence Liebling.

Liebling noted that Gawronski had worked with Gift of Life, a St. Petersburg adoption agency, for months before going to ABC. After she told Gift of Life about Vietri, that agency declined to place the baby for adoption without his consent.

If ABC had made "a routine telephone call to other agencies in the area," Liebling said, "Gift of Life would have said, "Yeah, we are familiar with Miss Gawronski. Let us tell you about Chris Vietri.' "

In April, a Tuscaloosa judge severed Vietri's parental rights and allowed the Johnsons to adopt Sam. Vietri effectively abandoned Sam by abusing Gawronski and by failing to support her during pregnancy, the judge ruled. Vietri has denied both those allegations.

That decision is on appeal in Alabama courts.

1998 Sep 5