January 19, 2009

Money & Emotion: Who pays the real cost? Cody

There is something so beautiful about this story...that these parents refused to give up even though the entire adoption & court-system was/is flawed and an unjust custody battle was drawn out over years, when it should have been decided when Cody was still a baby.

His natural parents began rightfully contesting this adoption when Cody was a tiny baby, but the attorneys and court-system did their normal "song and dance" in these cases so they could use the argument of "best interest of the child is to stay with the adoptive parents because they are the only ones he has ever known." It isn't the child's fault that the adoption code and court system was allowed to create MORE trauma for Cody. The natural parents could have been JUSTLY awarded custody of their baby at the beginning of the appeal process.

Just think how many "birthparents" have tried to appeal adoption proceedings and gave up because of this flawed system...I am so proud of this family. Don't you think we should all write our newspaper's editors and use this opportunity to speak about the need for reform in the adoption and court system when adoptions are contested? When natural mothers are pressured and natural fathers are accused of abandonment when they, in fact, are not notified or given the respect or right to be the father of their own child?

The pictures of this family on the newspaper website below are really touching.

Saturday, January 17, 2009
Birth parents' battle: Custody dispute is costly in money and emotion


Karen Bouffard / The Detroit NewsECORSE

For most of his short life, he answered to two names, called
two couples Mom and Dad, was schooled in two religions and lived in
two cities.But by a court ruling Christmas Eve, the twin identities of 5-year-old
Cody Barnett were narrowed to one.Kenneth Barnett and Christine Wolfe of Ecorse learned Dec. 24 that the
state Court of Appeals sided with them in a nearly five-year battle
for their birth son Cody -- a battle that cost them their savings,
their home and precious years with their child.But the decision devastated Phillip and Phyllis Unthank of Dearborn,
prospective adoptive parents who had custody of the boy since his
birth but lost it last February when Barnett and Wolfe were granted
full custody. The Unthanks have until Feb. 4 to decide whether to take
their battle to the state Supreme Court. Birmingham attorney John F.
Mills said this week they have not yet decided whether to file a leave
to appeal."My mom and dad won me. They blocked my (other) name," Cody said about
the family's trip to Caesarland, a kids pizza joint and playground,
after the ruling.Asked if he misses the Unthanks, he replied, "A little bit."Advocates laud the ruling, which underscores parents' constitutional
rights to raise children regardless of their circumstances as long as
they are fit. They say birth parents frequently give up or lose such
battles because adoptive parents typically have more money to spend on
qualified representation and extended court fights.
But adoptive
parents and their supporters sympathize with the Unthanks, and say
courts sometimes favor birth parents over the best interests of the
child."I would like to say a lot, but I don't want Duane, Cody, whoever --
that sweet little boy -- put in the middle of this," said Phyllis
Unthank, 51, who refused to comment further on the case.Child advocates on both sides say this case -- marked by lengthy
delays, jurisdictional wrangling and questionable rulings -- should
never have lagged so long in the Wayne County court system. The Court
of Appeals ruled both Wayne County's probate and circuit courts erred
in the case.Experts say the case illustrates why Wayne and other counties should
have just one court and one judge to decide all of a family's issues,
from divorce to custody -- something mandated by state lawmakers in
1996, but which many counties have not fully implemented.The case mirrors the 1993 "Baby Jessica" case in which Jan and Roberta
DeBoer of Washtenaw County were forced to surrender a 2 1/2 -year-old
girl they had raised since birth to her biological parents, Cara
Clausen and Daniel Schmidt of Iowa.In both cases, the birth mother initially gave the child to a
prospective adoptive couple, and the birth father later came forward
to claim custody. The birth parents, in each case, later got back
together and united in their fight to reclaim the child. In both
cases, the child lived and bonded with the couple who hoped to adopt
while the case dragged on in court. But ultimately they lost the child
to the birth parents.In deciding on Cody, the state appeals court cited the Michigan
Supreme Court's ruling on Baby Jessica. In both cases, it was
determined that the prospective adoptive parents had no claim to the
child simply by virtue of the child having resided with them.Father doubted paternityCody's case opens old wounds for Roberta DeBoer, who said she still
grieves over parting with the baby she called "Jessica.""Adoption is a legal term; it has nothing to do with parenting,
nothing at all," DeBoer said. "Once you have a baby that you care for
day in and day out and you in every right believe that child is yours
-- those parents became parents the moment they took that child in
their arms."In Cody's case, the entanglement started even before he was born on
Jan. 23, 2003, at Dearborn's Oakwood Hospital, six weeks after his
parents' bitter divorce. Wolfe admitted she had strayed from the
marriage, and Barnett refused to acknowledge paternity without a DNA
test. Wayne County Circuit Judge William Callahan entered a divorce
judgment that awarded the two joint legal custody of their older
daughter, Samantha, but made no provision for their unborn child.Wolfe, a hairdresser, was fearful of raising two children as a single
parent. But a relative knew the Unthanks, a childless couple anxious
to adopt, and urged the adoption as a solution.The Unthanks took the baby home from the hospital with temporary
custody and a written power of attorney to decide his medical care.
But genetic testing in February proved Barnett was the father of Cody.Barnett filed motions for custody in both circuit and probate court
and was denied. Meanwhile, the Unthanks were given temporary custody
while motions were argued in both courts.When Cody was about 18 months old, Wolfe revoked her power of attorney
and demanded her child back -- but the Unthanks refused. United by
common interest, Wolfe and Barnett reunited as a couple. Already
parents to Samantha, now 7, they had another daughter, Brooklyn, now 2
years old. They now wanted Cody to join the family.Jurisdiction in questionThe case lagged in part because Wayne County Probate Judge June
Blackwell-Hatcher believed Circuit Judge Callahan had jurisdiction of
the custody issue, since he had settled the divorce. Callahan
disagreed. Both judges ended up hearing some motions in the case.
Ultimately, the State Court Administrative Office temporarily named
Blackwell-Hatcher to the Circuit Court for the purpose of deciding
custody."I don't think its very frequent that this kind of rat's nest occurs
with this level of confusion, but this case points out general flaws
in the system
," said University of Michigan law professor Donald
Duquette, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University
of Michigan Law School.Duquette said the jurisdictional dispute between Callahan and
Blackwell-Hatcher wouldn't have happened if the county had a family
court division with just one judge handling the divorce, child
support, custody and juvenile issues.Some counties have implemented such courts, but many -- including
Wayne -- still have more than one judge involved."If there had been one judge, if the circuit judge had taken
jurisdiction for the whole case, it wouldn't have gone down this
road," Duquette said.Duquette also said Barnett should have been granted legal custody from
the beginning
-- and probably would have if he'd had legal
representation. Barnett said he didn't have a lawyer until later in
the case.Although Barnett had been in trouble with the law, and even served
time in prison for writing a bad check before Cody was born, there was
no history of child abuse or neglect.Callahan defended his decision to turn down Barnett's bid for custody,
saying he appeared not to be fit."There were questions as to Mr. Barnett's fitness; he didn't respond
to a lot of stuff," Callahan said. "Mr. Barnett was not present in
court on most dates."Wolfe and Barnett pooled their resources to hire Ann Arbor attorney
Marian Faupel, who represented the birth parents in the Baby Jessica
case.The couple has paid about $30,000 in legal fees. At times, they
couldn't make mortgage payments, and their home in Dearborn Heights
was foreclosed on. They are in debt for about another $80,000."Most people would have lost their child -- that's the tactic," said
Wolfe of the many motions and counter-motions brought by the Unthanks.
"It's to force you to give up."
In July 2005, the probate judge allowed Wolfe visitation, starting
with a few hours a day several days a week.Visitation was slowly increased until the child was spending half his
time with each couple. Thursday evening through Sunday he was Cody
Thomas Barnett. Sunday evening to Thursday, he was Duane Farrell
Unthank.That abruptly ended Feb. 20, when Blackwell-Hatcher issued her
decision granting full custody to Wolfe. Cody hasn't seen the Unthanks
since, and knows the Dec. 24 ruling means he never may again. He's now
known simply as Cody Barnett.Asked which name he liked better, Cody or Duane, he said, "I liked
them both the same."You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206 or kbouffard@detnews.com .

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