Utah high court rules in favor of adopted parents in 'Baby Emma' case

Published: Tuesday, July 19 2011 5:09 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that a Virginia man granted custody of his daughter in that state has no claim to the child in Utah — where the child was ultimately adopted.

John Wyatt took an appeal of a district court ruling, which stated that the man had not taken the proper action in time to halt the adoption, to the state's high court citing the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act.

His argument was that the act gave the state of Virginia, where he lived with the girl's mother and where the baby was born, jurisdiction over the child.

But the Utah Supreme Court determined that because the man didn't raise the claim at the district court level and because it does not usurp jurisdiction over the child from the Utah state courts, he waived his rights under the act.

"We also hold that Mr. Wyatt failed to timely assert his parental rights under Utah law and, therefore, the district court correctly denied his motion," Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Parrish wrote.

"Baby Emma" was born in February 2009. Before the child was even born, the birth mother decided to place the child up for adoption, and she relinquished her parental rights just days after Emma was born. Simultaneous to the adoptive parents taking the child to Utah and filing an adoption petition, Wyatt initiated custody action. In April 2009, he registered as the child's putative father.

However, the state's high court ruled that Wyatt failed to meet the "strict requirements for unmarried birth fathers" as laid out by the Utah Legislature and therefore waived his rights to the child.

In December 2009, a Virginia court "relying on the (Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act) … determined it had exclusive jurisdiction to determine custody." But because Wyatt didn't raise the issue in Utah at the district court level, he waived his argument, the Utah Supreme Court ruled.

"The PKPA applies to adoption proceedings," Parrish wrote. "It does not, however, strip the Utah courts of subject matter jurisdiction over the adoption of (Emma)."

Larry Jenkins, who represents Utah-based adoption agency A Act of Love, said that neither he nor the girl's adopted parents could say much on the case due to a pending lawsuit Wyatt filed against them in federal court.

"They are very grateful for the ruling, very happy with it," he said. "We felt the ruling was good."

That said, Jenkins said it was hard to determine what, if anything, will happen next.

"I don't know where it will go from here," he said. "The only avenue from here is the U.S. Supreme Court, so we'll see what happens."

Wyatt's attorney, Joshua Peterman, said Tuesday he was disappointed by the decision. "You don't necessarily agree with the decision, but the Supreme Court's ruled and we respect it," he said.

Peterman said he had hoped that the Utah Supreme Court would have discussed the merits of a PKPA claim in regard to these kinds of cases and "give us a clearer framework and road map for future cases going forward."

"This isn't the only case (of its kind) and won't be the only one," Peterman said. "We've gone as far as we can go in Utah. … I need to talk to my client and see whether to go forward."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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