Adoption case challenges biological father's rights

June 27, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

The boy is 3 now. His father, Ernest, saw him once in the hospital nursery the day the child was born and once more, by chance, last March in a supermarket parking lot, as the little boy walked with his adoptive father.

"He looks exactly like me," said Ernest, 26, an electrician from Crownsville. The same features. The same straight dark hair. "I went blank. I wanted to stop the car and get out and grab him."

The child, referred to in court records only as "Baby G.," is "happy,) active," according to court records. He doesn't know any family other than his adoptive parents. And he doesn't know that he's at the center of a three-year court battle, a fight that has made its way to the Maryland Court of Appeals and remains unsettled.

The controversy has been called Maryland's Baby Jessica case, after the bitter fight over a 3-year-old girl in the Midwest, which ended with her removal from her adoptive parents' home last summer.

In a recent decision applauded by child advocates, the Court of Appeals used Baby G.'s case to expand children's legal rights. The judges decided that, if it's in the child's best interests, a court may grant a private adoption over the objections of a biological parent -- even if the parent hasn't been judged unfit.

Traditionally, a biological parent's right to rear his own child could not be terminated unless the parent was deemed "unfit" -- or unless "exceptional circumstances" persuaded the court to end the parent's rights.

"It's an excellent ruling for Maryland's kids," said Susan Leviton, head of Advocates for Children and Youth, "because it's saying, 'Biology isn't enough. You have to act like a parent. It's not just what you say but what you've done.' It's one thing to assert your rights, but let's look at what you've done for this child."

Ernest, of course, sees the ruling in his case far differently. "To go and take another man's child is not right," he said.

The court opinions do not reveal the last names of the parties. Paul Mark Sandler, attorney for the adoptive parents, would not allow them to be interviewed for this article because the adoption has not been settled. Ernest spoke on the condition that his full name would not be used.

The biological mother, according to her attorney, Natalie Rees, has always believed she made the right decision in placing her child with the adoptive family.

The boy "is thriving," Ms. Rees said. "He's getting wonderful care and has an extended family."

But Ernest said the fact that his son is well cared for isn't the most important issue.

"I can give this child as much or more love than they can," he said. "I can give this child his heritage."

* The legal saga of Baby G. began before his birth, in July 1990, when Ernest's girlfriend, Mellisa, told him she was pregnant.

RTC The two, he acknowledges, didn't fit the profile of model parents. He was 21, with an unreliable work history, unstable living arrangements, and an arrest and probation before judgment on a charge of cocaine possession, according to the court record. She was 20, a dancer on Baltimore's Block, already the mother of a 6-month-old boy from an earlier relationship.

According to court files, she told Ernest she didn't believe in abortion and planned to put the baby up for adoption. The next day, Ernest moved out. He would have been leaving, he said, even had Mellisa not been pregnant. "She was fed up with me, and I was fed up with her."

In the months that followed, Ernest said, he didn't contact Mellisa. Meanwhile, with the help of a friend, she had found James and Darlene D., a financially secure Anne Arundel County couple in their 30s, and decided she wanted them to adopt her child.

Ms. Rees, who was handling the adoption for the mother, called Ernest in January and February, 1991, to discuss the adoption plans. He voiced no objection. In letters to the lawyer, he confirmed his willingness to consent to the adoption.

But complications began, Ms. Rees said, when Mellisa, looking for Ernest, called his mother and told her that a baby was due soon. Ernest and his mother for the first time discussed the pregnancy, and she offered to help with child care.

Soon after, Ernest told Ms. Rees he had changed his mind. He wanted the baby, he said, as long as it was proved to be his. He hired a lawyer to fight for the child.

The baby was born in March 1991, with Mrs. D., the prospective adoptive mother, in attendance. Ernest heard of the birth through a friend. He brought his new girlfriend to the hospital nursery to see his son, his first child.

Two days later, with Mellisa's consent, the D.'s filed for adoption in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court and took the baby boy home. Ernest was given until April 10 to file an objection. He did, on April 9.

Ms. Rees said Ernest could have stopped the adoption at the hospital. But he didn't.

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