The lawsuit highlights problems with Utah's adoption-friendly laws, which critics have said overlook the rights of unwed fathers in deference to a mother's right to determine what is in the best interests of her child. But at issue is whether LDS Family Services followed a federal law that grants tribes jurisdiction over children of American Indian descent.
LDS Family Services violated requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act because the agency failed to contact the Navajo Nation before the baby was surrendered, alleges a petition seeking to enjoin the adoption filed by the tribe in U.S. District Court.
LDS Family Services, the social welfare arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disputes the allegations.
"Over the past 25 years, LDS Family Services has placed numerous children of Native American ancestry and enjoys good relationships with Native American tribes," said church spokesman Dale Bills in a prepared statement. "[The agency] placed this baby for adoption with a family selected by the birth mother. The agency complied with all applicable state and federal laws. The baby is doing very well with her adoptive parents."
The Navajo Nation could not be immediately reached for comment.
The tribe's lawsuit alleges the biological mother Sarah Ashley Ziska told LDS Family Services of the baby's possible Navajo ancestry before the child was born.
But LDS Family Services proceeded with an adoption of the girl born Feb. 14, 2005, noting no fathers had registered with Utah's Putative Father Registry - one step unwed fathers must take to establish their parental rights to a child, the petition said.
Later that month, the mother relinquished her rights to her daughter before a 3rd District Court judge.
In the relinquishment filings, Ziska refused to disclose the identity of the biological father, citing her right of privacy.
It wasn't until March 2005 that Navajo Nation member Herb Begay Jr. learned from a friend that he might have fathered a baby by Ziska and that Ziska had put the child up for adoption, the petition said.
In May 2005, Ziska told LDS Family Services, and DNA testing later confirmed, that Begay was indeed the girl's father, the petition said. The agency allegedly then sent a letter to an intake worker for Navajo Children and Family Services.
That same month, Begay filed a petition for custody of the child in 3rd District Court, but his request was denied.
LDS Family Services operates a national network of 71 adoption agencies, including 13 in Utah.
Responsible for drafting many of Utah's adoption-friendly laws, LDS Family Services is widely seen as an authority on best practices, said Janice Knaphus, a state adoption licensing specialist. "We've had maybe two complaints since 1999 against any of the LDS offices and no sanctions."