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Utah dad alleges 'deceit,' takes fight for son to federal court

Published December 31, 2013 6:11 pm

Adoption • Lawsuit alleges conspiracy to defraud and kidnap infant at birth.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An unmarried Utah father whose son was placed for adoption at birth without his knowledge or consent has filed a $130 million federal lawsuit against the biological mother, adoption agency, adoptive parents and attorneys alleging they conspired in an "illegal deceit-ridden infant adoption" that deprived him of his son.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Jake Strickland alleges the defendants acted in a "clandestine" manner and "essentially kidnapped" his son. It alleges the defendants engaged in racketeering, human trafficking and various kinds of fraud as part of a conspiracy to deprive Strickland of his child.

Defendants named in the lawsuit include biological mother Whitney Vivian Pettersson Demke; the adoptive parents (identified only by initials); LDS Family Services; Kirton & McConkie, and attorneys Larry Jenkins and David J. Hardy, both of whom are now associated with Kirton & McConkie. Demke could not be reached for comment.

Hardy declined to comment on the lawsuit on behalf of himself, Jenkins and their law firm. Hardy also declined comment on behalf of LDS Family Services, which handled the adoption and is represented by Kirton & McConkie.

Attorney Wes Hutchins is representing Strickland in the federal lawsuit, as well as an action pending in the Utah Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit, Hutchins said, is "basically an effort to hold everyone accountable for the conspiracy to defraud Jake."

Strickland and Demke met in 2009 and months later she announced she was pregnant. The baby was due in mid-January 2011.

Their relationship soon turned rocky, though they continued to see each other occasionally. When Strickland told Demke he planned to sign up with Utah's putative father registry, he says she became furious and threatened to not let him see the baby.

During the course of the pregnancy, Strickland bought groceries and gave cash to cover medical bills and help support Demke and her child from another relationship. He also accompanied her to doctor's visits and was present when an ultrasound revealed she was carrying a boy.

The two discussed baby names ­— they planned to name their son Jack — shared parenting plans, including Strickland's desire to raise the boy on his own if necessary. He was eventually led to believe Demke, who had brought up adoption as an option, supported a shared parenting plan.

That winter, the two had a joint baby shower and attended a Christmas party, both hosted by Strickland's family.

On Dec. 28, 2010, they toured the holiday lights at the LDS Church's Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. The next day, Strickland exchanged text messages with Demke, but nothing seemed amiss.

In fact, she gave birth on Dec. 29 and a day later placed the baby for adoption. Strickland did not learn until Jan. 5 that Demke had already given birth and relinquished her rights to the child. There was another surprise, too: It turned out Demke was still legally married to her husband — not divorced, as she had led Strickland to believe — and under Utah law, as the child's presumed father, he had had to sign off on the adoption despite knowing the infant was not his offspring.

On Jan. 6, Strickland launched a paternity claim and a legal battle that has met with both wins and losses. A 3rd District judge declined to dismiss Strickland's paternity claim and asked that it be joined with the adoption proceeding underway in Utah's 2nd District Court.

While the adoptive parents and birth mother later stipulated to Strickland's paternity, the case was never consolidated with the adoption proceeding. Strickland learned in November 2011 that his son's adoption had been completed. A 2nd District Judge denied Strickland's efforts to challenge the adoption, and last January he filed a notice of appeal with the Utah Court of Appeals.

In the lawsuit, Strickland alleges Demke never intended to co-parent "Baby Jack" with him and "intentionally defrauded" him. The other parties, he alleges, assisted her in carrying out that "fraudulent scheme," including coercing her then-estranged husband to sign a paternity relinquishment.

"Utah's pro-adoption and anti-birth father laws, facilitated through fraud immunity, have given rise to a greater number of out-of-state birth mothers forum shopping Utah, and through their own efforts, aided by legal counsel, and in some cases by the prospective adoptive parents, they have been able to successfully place their babies for adoption through misrepresentation and fraud — keeping biological fathers in the dark throughout the process," the complaint says.

Utah's adoption statute, which provides immunity to birth mothers who engage in fraudulent acts, "has become an ugly sword slicing through father/child relationships … resulting in fathers being lied to, deceived, and defrauded out of their paternity rights, all in an effort to manufacture the perception of a new, and perceived 'improved' family relationship," according to the complaint.

It alleges the two attorneys, agency and adoptive parents facilitated that sort of deception in the Strickland case; the attorneys also engaged in such practices in other cases involving unwed, biological fathers, the complaint alleges.

brooke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib