Utah Supreme Court hears battle over adopted toddler

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A Virginia father's fight to gain custody of his 18-month-old daughter went before the Utah Supreme Court Thursday morning.

The court heard arguments from both sides: the biological father and the Utah couple who adopted the child.

John Wyatt, the biological father in this case, has waged battle in two states -- Virginia and Utah. He says he's been fighting for custody of his daughter, who he calls baby Emma.

Wyatt has never met his daughter, but says he won't give up fighting for her.

"She's like the most important thing in my life," Wyatt said. "She's like my heart. She means everything to me."

A Utah couple adopted the baby just days after she was born, but Wyatt says this was done without his consent.

The Utah Supreme Court listened to arguments over jurisdiction and adoption law. A Virginia judge has already awarded Wyatt custody, but a Utah judge ruled the adoptive parents have custody of the child.

I have been fighting for her tooth and nail to get her back. I did everything I possibly could. I did everything to protect my rights.

–John Wyatt

Josh Peterman, Wyatt's attorney, says Utah should uphold Virginia's decision.

"States should respect and acknowledge another state's interpretations of its own laws," he says.

Wyatt says he has already won the fight for his daughter and is frustrated she isn't home with him yet.

"I have been fighting for her tooth and nail to get her back," he says. "I did everything I possibly could. I did everything to protect my rights. They gave venue jurisdiction, that means Utah has no right to hear this case. She should be back home with me."

Larry Jenkins, the attorney representing Act of Love adoption agency, says Wyatt was informed by the birth mother of her plans to place the child up for adoption.

Wyatt says since the girl's birth, he's tried every way possible to gain custody. Jenkins argues Wyatt did not act quickly enough, saying his claims were filed too late in both states.

Utah law has strict requirements for unmarried, biological fathers and states they must register their paternity within a certain amount of time.

"An unmarried, biological father has to take certain steps to preserve their rights to contest an adoption," he says. "Our whole point is that he didn't take them in a timely manner, the things that he did."

For one Wyoming woman, Wyatt's fight is a familiar one.

Tayna O'Dea says her husband lost custody of his daughter last year. She says Utah's adoption laws have too many loopholes. She came court Thursday to show her support.

"It's déjà vu," O'Dea said. "When is it going to stop? Wow many more kids need to be taken away?"

A decision was not reached Thursday. The Utah Supreme Court will take the case under advisement.

In cases like this one, a decision can take months.

E-mail: aforester@ksl.com


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