'Baby Emma' case puts state adoption laws between father, child

John Wyatt has photographs of Baby Emma from four to seven months old. He is in a custody battle to get his biological daughter, who was taken to Utah and lives with adoptive parents.
John Wyatt has photographs of Baby Emma from four to seven months old. He is in a custody battle to get his biological daughter, who was taken to Utah and lives with adoptive parents. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

John Wyatt raced to the hospital, excited to be a father but worried about the mother.

His girlfriend had promised to call him the moment she went into labor, but she'd turned off her cellphone. Wyatt had been calling it for hours. Finally, an operator at Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge confirmed the news: His girlfriend was there, and his daughter had been born.

When Wyatt arrived at the hospital that morning of Feb. 11, 2009, he got the shock of his 20-year-old life: Administrators insisted that no such baby was there -- and no such mother.

Court records show that Wyatt's daughter, Emma, was born Feb. 10, at that very hospital, and that she spent the next week at two Woodbridge hotels before being put up for adoption -- in Utah. "We just want Emma to come home," says Wyatt's mother, Jeri. "My son wants his child. I want to see my granddaughter."

More than a year later, a cross-country court fight over the child known as "Baby Emma" has yet to settle the question of whether the strawberry-blond, blue-eyed girl was illegitimately taken from her father or legally put up for adoption by her mother, 20-year-old Emily Colleen Fahland, a George Mason University student. The highly unusual dispute pits Virginia against Utah; a Stafford County judge in December awarded Wyatt custody of Emma and cited a federal kidnapping statute in ordering the state to bring her back from Utah.

Virginia officials say they lack the legal authority to follow the judge's order.

In Salt Lake City, a Utah judge issued a competing order granting temporary custody to the adoptive couple in that state, and Emma has been living with them ever since. Attorneys for the couple say Wyatt, of Dumfries, failed to assert his parental rights in time to contest the adoption. His appeal is pending in a Utah court.

"My daughter is being held hostage," says Wyatt, now 21, a D.C. nightclub worker who has never seen Emma. "She was kidnapped and cradle-robbed from me, and I'm baffled that nothing has been done."

The case, which has become the talk of the nation's close-knit circle of adoption lawyers since the Wyatts appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show, is the latest to spotlight Utah adoption laws that experts say are unusually tough on unmarried fathers. Lawyers cite at least 10 recent cases in which babies were taken to or born in Utah and adopted without an out-of-state father's consent.

In one case, the Utah Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of an unwed Wyoming mother who falsely told the father she miscarried, traveled to Utah to deliver the baby girl and put her up for adoption. "Utah risks becoming a magnet for those seeking to unfairly cut off opportunities for biological fathers to assert their rights to connection with their children," Chief Justice Christine Durham wrote in dissent.

Joan Hollinger, a University of California at Berkeley professor and a leading authority on adoption law, called Utah's decisions in the Baby Emma case "outrageous" because Wyatt filed for custody in Virginia just eight days after Emma's birth. Utah laws and court decisions, she said, "make it virtually impossible for an out-of-state father to prevent the adoption of an out-of-wedlock child when the mother is determined to go forward."

Utah is culturally conservative, and lawyers say the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its emphasis on family values, has strongly encouraged adoption-friendly laws. "The Utah statutes can be harsh, but they are looking at what's best for the child: stable placements and two-parent families," said David Hardy, a lawyer for LDS Family Services, a Mormon Church-affiliated adoption agency that is among the nation's largest.

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