Baby Emma's rightful home

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

IN SOME WAYS, Baby Emma is a lucky little girl: She is wanted. But this very fact makes her the center of a legal drama that is doomed for heartbreak.

Baby Emma, as she is known in a legal dispute, was born in Northern Virginia in 2009 to young, unwed parents. The biological father, John Wyatt, wanted to keep the baby. The biological mother, a college student, told Mr. Wyatt that they would make a decision together, but she cut off communications just before delivering the baby and agreed to place her daughter for adoption by a married couple from Utah.

As The Post's Jerry Markon reported, Mr. Wyatt filed for custody in a Virginia court eight days after the birth -- and five days before the Utah couple formally filed adoption papers in Utah. He entered his name on a Virginia registry for putative fathers; this list is meant to ensure that children are not given up for adoption without the father's consent. A Virginia judge granted Mr. Wyatt's custody request.

But the laws of Virginia and Mr. Wyatt's desire to keep his child meant nothing to a Utah court, which granted temporary custody to the Utah couple. These Utah proceedings were a travesty. Mr. Wyatt never relinquished his rights to his child nor was he notified -- as Virginia law requires -- about the possibility that the baby was being placed for adoption. He took immediate action in the state where he and his girlfriend lived and where the baby was born. States regularly recognize judgments and legal proceedings from other jurisdictions. Not so Utah, particularly in custody and adoption matters. The state's laws are skewed in favor of married, heterosexual couples and make it exceedingly difficult for unwed biological fathers to fight to keep their children. The state also flouts the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, which mandates that custody judgments be given "full faith and credit" by other states.

While the law seems clear, the moral resolution is more difficult. In her 14 months, Baby Emma has known the Utah couple as her only parents. Ripping her away from them now would be traumatic. Yet the Utah family knew when they took the baby home that the biological father had not given up his rights, and the law should be leery of rewarding those whose claims are enhanced simply because time has dragged on or judges have acted badly. The case comes before a Utah court of appeals at the end of next month. The judges should take Mr. Wyatt's rights seriously, as Utah's lower court failed to do.

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