PROVO — An Army drill sergeant gaining custody of his nearly 2-year-old daughter, who was put up for adoption at birth without his knowledge, is an important legal victory for father's rights in Utah, says the president of the Utah Council for Ethical Adoption Practices.
"I think it's still a landmark case, even though we haven't received an appellate decision on it yet," said council president Wes Hutchins, an adoption attorney who is not involved in the case.
Teleah Achane, now 22 months old, was placed for adoption at birth in 2011 by her biological mother, Tira Bland. At the time, Bland was married to the baby's father, Terry Achane, who is serving in the Army. Bland traveled to Utah from Texas to sign off on the adoption without Achane's consent, claiming he had abandoned them.
A Utah County couple, Jared and Kristi Frei, adopted Teleah through Utah-based Adoption Center of Choice and have raised her since she was a newborn.
Although Achane was "very happy" to be reunited with his daughter, he acknowledged the pain of all involved in the case.
"They love my daughter just as much as I do," Achane said of the Freis. "I think they're going through the pain I went through in the earlier months."
Upon learning in June 2011 that his daughter had been adopted without his knowledge, Achane immediately contacted the adoption agency and demanded her return. Neither the agency nor the prospective adoptive family would return the child and the adoption moved forward.
Late last year, 4th District Court Judge Darold McDade ruled that Achane’s parental rights had been unlawfully circumvented by Bland, the adoption agency and the Freis. McDade dismissed the Freis' adoption petition and ordered the couple to transfer custody of Teleah to her father.
Attempts to stay the order were denied by McDade and the Utah Supreme Court.
The Freis turned over the child to Achane on Thursday. On Friday, the parties attended a closed hearing to clarify visitation arrangments for the Freis.
Visitations will take place in South Carolina until Achen is transferred to Hawaii in March. Then, the visits will take place there, said Mark Wiser, Achen's attorney.
"We actually want them to be part of the transition to help. They'll be able to come out in two weeks if they'd like to and spend some time with that transition. We're very supportive to help Tuleah adjust to her new life," Wiser said.
Hutchins said the case is instructive to all involved in adoptions.
"Adoption agencies, prospective adoptive parents and everyone involved in adoptions should be very careful about biological fathers and whether or not they are wanting to raise their children, whether or not the birth mother's been upfront about their involvement and their desire to be involved in raising the child.
"I think everyone's on notice that these are all issues now that ought to be handled ethically and legally as opposed to cutting corners."
Achane said the legal victory was a long time coming.
“It’s 22 months too long — but the wait was worth it. I wish it wouldn't have happened but it did. I fought, I got the outcomes here. I got my daughter back. She gets to go home with me to South Carolina now.”
The girl and her grandmother spoke on the phone briefly last night, Achane said. "It brought her (the grandmother) to tears so she wants to see her in person," Achane said.
The case remains on appeal but Wiser said it is doubtful that the Freis would prevail.
"I think they have less than 1 percent (chance of winning). It's almost a frivilous pursuit at this point," he said.
The Freis' attorney, Lance Rich, said Friday that this is a painful time for the couple and that they are asking for privacy.
Wiser said Bland was largely to blame for the ordeal because of misrepresentations she made to Achane and the adoption agency, which resulted in Archane being deprived of his rights and the Freis having to return custody of Teleah.
"She came to Utah because Utah allows human trafficking in babies. That's the reason. Utah has the most lax rules and they allow children to come to Utah for the sole purpose of being adopted out and to try to deprive fathers of their legal rights. That's exactly what happened here," Wiser said.
Hutchins said he was "elated" by Friday's events.
"I think it's a great celebration for the biological family. My heart goes out to the prospective adoptive parents who I suspect didn’t know all the facts going in to this adoptive placement.
"I'm sure have spent a lot of money getting to the point they are now and now they don't have a child. That's the tragedy in this case but I choose to look at the positive of it — that a child's going back to a biological family that wanted to be involved in raising that child."
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