SALT LAKE CITY — For more than a year, John Wyatt has fought for his daughter — for the right to see her, for the right to hold her. He hasn't had the chance to do either.
"Baby Emma" was born in Virginia in February 2009 and adopted by a Utah couple a short time later. Since then, Wyatt has waged an uphill battle for custody in a state he says makes it too easy to strip fathers of their rights.
"It's heartbreaking," he said Thursday outside the Utah Supreme Court chambers. "It's caused so much pain and stress. I think about her all the time. I will never give up on her. She is my heart. You can't live without your heart."
Before Utah's high court Thursday, attorneys for both Wyatt and Emma's adoptive parents laid out the legal arguments in the case.
Larry Jenkins, the Salt Lake City attorney who represents the Act of Love adoption agency, said Wyatt was informed of the mother's intentions to give the baby up for adoption and failed to take the proper steps to stop it.
An unmarried mother "ought to have first choice" of what should happen to the child, Jenkins said, unless the biological father takes the proper steps.
Wyatt took no legal action prior to the adoption proceedings and waited more than two months after Emma's birth to place his name on the Virginia Putative Father Registry, Jenkins said.
In the interim, Emma has become "very much a part" of her adoptive family, Act of Love said in a statement.
For his part, Wyatt disputes the claim that he failed to take the necessary steps to protect his parental rights. He said he filed for custody of Emma in early February, five days before adoption proceedings started in Utah.
Outside the courtroom, Wyatt said the adoptive parents coerced the mother into giving the child up for adoption.
"They held her up in a hotel until she signed away her rights," he said.
Wyatt said he and the child's mother agreed to make a decision together about what should happen to the child.
"I pray to God they make the right decision," Wyatt said of the Supreme Court.
Tanya O'Dea, a Wyoming woman whose husband lost his daughter in a similar battle last year, accused Jenkins of "stealing babies." She said Utah's adoption laws are too loose, allowing mothers to establish residency too quickly and depriving fathers of their rights.
Wyatt's attorney, Josh Peterman, said Utah has become a "magnet" for these kinds of cases. "People have realized how easy it is to cut off the rights of a putative father in Utah," he said.
Peterman said he hoped the court would make a decision before year's end.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company