It is not the full victory that Robert Manzanares wanted, but now it’s official: He will get to fill the role of daddy in his daughter’s life.
In a decision released last week, a juvenile judge in Colorado decided that the now-6-year-old girl will continue to live primarily in Utah with the couple who have had custody of her since birth but also ruled that Manzanares can play an “important fatherly role” with visitation in both Utah and his current home state of New Mexico.
The judge also ordered that Manzanares and the couple share joint decision making on all major aspects of the girl’s life — education, health care, extracurricular and recreational activities, etc. — to ensure “more frequent or continuing contact” between the parties.
The judge said he was “mindful of the deceitful, fraudulent and outrageous conduct” that launched the dispute, but opted not to give that background “much weight” and instead focused on the commitment made by Manzanares and the girl’s “psychological parents” to work together with her best interests in mind.
The judge’s Solomon-like decision is in keeping with recommendations of Utah child psychologist Doug Goldsmith, who consulted in the case and oversaw Manzanares’ introduction to his daughter after a 2012 Utah Supreme Court ruling in his favor.
Mixed result • For Manzanares, the decision was both a victory and a disappointment.
“I get to be my daughter’s father,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “That is what I set out to be before she was born. She is going to know me as Daddy and I am going to know her as daughter.”
The story starts in Colorado in 2007, when Manzanares learned his then-girlfriend, Carie Terry Morelock, was pregnant. They broke up and he filed a paternity petition in January 2008 to protect his rights. A month later, unbeknownst to Manzanares, Morelock traveled to Utah and gave premature birth to a girl on Feb. 17, 2008. The same day she was due to appear in a Colorado courtroom on Manzanares’ paternity petition, Morelock stood before a Utah judge and relinquished her parental rights to Scott and Julissa Byington, her brother and sister-in-law.
The Utah Supreme Court ultimately found that Manzanares had been improperly barred from intervening in the adoption proceeding, which was never completed. It sent the case back to a lower court, which then agreed it should be transferred back to Colorado.
Manzanares had asked the Colorado judge to give him sole custody of his daughter while granting liberal visitation rights to the Byingtons. But the judge agreed with Goldsmith that disrupting the girl’s life to that degree could result in life-long psychological harm.
Denver attorney Michael L. Cheroutes, who represented Manzanares, said they are still weighing an appeal that would focus on whether the Byingtons had any standing to seek a custody decision in the case since legally they are “nonparents.”
“Because the way they obtained possession of [the girl] was wrongful, they ought not be able to use that as a basis of standing to ask for further orders,” Cheroutes said. “It might motivate other people to obtain a child by wrongful means and use that to seek custody orders.”
That said, the decision was a “good one” in other respects because it acknowledged the wrongdoing underlying the case, gave Manzanares a generous visitation schedule that starts immediately and rejected the Utah couples’ request that Manzanares be required to pay child support.
The judge said that would be “inequitable, unjust and inappropriate” given the deception that led to the adoption and triggered years of multi-state litigation. He also noted Manzanares has spent several hundred thousand dollars so far to assert his rights.
“Appropriate and fair” • Attorney Mike Hulen, of Littleton, Colo., who represented the Byingtons, said they feel the order is “appropriate and fair.” Hulen called it “the best any court could do given the background of the case,” and said he appreciated the judge’s focus on moving forward in a cooperative way.
“The judge put the interest of the child first, which had to be done despite the difficulty of the past several years,” Hulen said.
While the girl “undoubtedly” faces some adjustment, “it was agreed by all parties that the child and the birth father need to get to know each better and they can’t do that unless they spend more time together,” he said. “The court order does that and my clients are going to work to make sure that happens.”
Manzanares, who is raising a son and two stepdaughters with his fiancé, said he’ll make a decision about an appeal next week. Last month, Manzanares filed a $120 million federal civil rights lawsuit in Utah alleging Morelock, the Byingtons and their Utah attorneys colluded to deprive him of his parental rights; that case is still pending.
While he agrees it’s a complicated situation, Manzanares blames that in part on the snail’s pace of court proceedings that work against unwed fathers like himself.
“It scares me because of the fact that it just takes so long to get to a place where these fathers, including myself, can play a role in their children’s lives,” he said. “They need to speed these cases up so if a father is going to be a part of a child’s life, it is decided in the first years of a child’s life.”
It’s not a new or unique problem. In the highly publicized “Baby Richard” case, an unwed father succeeded in regaining custody of his son when the boy was 4 years old. More recently, a legal dispute over “Baby Veronica” lasted four years before the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of her adoptive parents; during those years, the girl moved from her adoptive parents’ custody to her biological father’s care and then back again.
Adam Pertman, president of The Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, said letting these cases “go on and on and on creates situations where no one wins the game.”
“If you don’t do the right thing from the start and include everyone whose rights might need to be considered, you travel a road that might end up with no possibility of a good ending,” Pertman said. “And that is unfortunate for everyone concerned.”
In the Manzanares case, the judge at least did not turn a father away — which is “what happens in many cases,” Pertman said.
“What we need to do in law and policy and practice and judicial process is not create situations that are this problematic for everyone concerned,” he said.
Both Cheroutes and Hulen agree.
“I don’t think there is a silver bullet, but it might be a start if specialized procedures were adopted by states to deal with cases like this,” Cheroutes said.
Utah also might opt to follow the example of Colorado, where a birth mother is required to give a birth father notice of an adoption proceeding if she knows his whereabouts.
“Colorado tries to move pretty quickly and does protect the rights of the father,” Hulen said.
“It shouldn’t take four or five years in Utah, Colorado or anywhere else for a paternity or custody decision to be resolved,” he added. “Wherever such a case may be filed, one would hope the law would move forward a lot more quickly.”