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At dinner in his New Mexico home, Rob Manzanares looked every bit the quintessential dad, bantering with the three children he’s raising with his fiancée. But there’s an empty seat at the table that he’s been fighting to fill for six years.
“It's state-sanctioned kidnapping,” he said. “It’s stealing of children.”
Manzanares fathered a daughter in 2008 and claims his then-girlfriend gave her up for adoption in Utah without his knowledge or consent. He’s been waging a legal battle to get full custody of the girl ever since.
In Utah, unwed biological fathers have few paternal rights. To have any say in an adoption, they must satisfy complicated criteria within 30 days of a mother’s decision to give up the child. These requirements include signing a biological father registry in Utah, showing evidence of financial and material prenatal support to the expectant mothe,r and a detailed plan for supporting both the mother and child after the birth.
Utah’s laws give such limited ground for unmarried fathers to challenge adoptions that some out-of-state women have been enticed to make the trip to give birth there and put the baby up for adoption. Now, a dozen unmarried biological fathers have filed a federal lawsuit against the state, arguing their children were put up for adoption in Utah without their consent and in violation of their constitutional rights.
A secret birth
A couple of weeks into the pregnancy, Manzanares said his ex-girlfriend, a Mormon, became active in the Church again, and brought up adoption as a way for the child to be raised in a two-parent home. According to Manzanares, she said that would be in the child's best interests.
“I told her from that minute on, I would fight – no matter what – to be part of my child’s life,” he told America Tonight.
In a bid to establish paternal rights, Manzanares registered as a biological father in their home state, Colorado, where he expected his girlfriend to give birth. But he said she hatched a plan to secretly give birth in Utah and place the baby with adoptive parents there.
“I got a really strange email from her stating that she was going to visit a sick relative in Utah, and we’d re-discuss the adoption issue when she returned,” he recalled.
She returned to Colorado no longer pregnant and without the infant. Manzanares discovered she had delivered six weeks premature and signed away her parental rights, placing the infant with her brother and sister-in-law.
Both the mother and the adoptive parents did not respond to interview requests from America Tonight.
Manzanares traveled to Utah and said he began frantically searching hospitals, hoping to find a child that looked like him.
“It’s like your heart is ripped out and shredded in front of you, and you’re grabbing to put the pieces back together and try to find where a piece is and it’s not there and you can’t find it,” he said.
He didn't find his biological child. And since he hadn’t met Utah’s paternity requirements, the courts rejected his petition to undo the adoption.
Manzanares is now one of 12 single men who claim their biological children were given up for adoption in Utah without their knowledge or consent. They are challenging the constitutionality of the state's adoption law and demanding $130 million in damages.
“You can lie. You can misrepresent. You can deceive, and that's not a basis to overturn an otherwise-illegal adoption,” Hutchins said. “So a birth mother can lie to a birth father and say, ‘I'm not placing the child for adoption,’ or tell the birth father the baby died.”
A fraud immunity statute in Utah adoption legislation means that even if it is proven someone lied during an adoption, it cannot be overturned.
Hutchens believed Utah agencies tout pro-adoption policies to encourage single mothers-to-be to give birth and put their child up for adoption in the state, even offering to cover a variety of travel, accommodation and medical expenses. He also had a hunch that some agencies were helping expectant mothers hide the adoptions from the biological fathers. So Hutchins launched an undercover investigation into the practices of prominent adoption agencies in Salt Lake City. Women posed as expectant mothers and called agency representatives to inquire about adoption. They secretly taped the audio conversations.
Hutchens argues the recordings reveal agency representatives coaching women on strategies to exploit the law and put a child up for adoption, without getting the father's consent.
In one recording, for example, an agency employee told awoman that she wouldn't have to identify the biological father, or get his consent.
"You don't have to notify him because he's not a legal," the employee said.
In another, and agency representative told the woman, "You can tell the birth father anything after you give birth; might be easier to tell the birth father that you were in an accident, and the baby died."
Hutchens entered some of the recordings into evidence in the federal lawsuit.
Salt Lake City is the international headquarters of the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the U.S.’ fourth-largest Christian denomination.
Some see Mormon religious values as the foundation for the state’s adoption policies, which they argue were designed to discourage abortion and place more babies in two-parent homes.
Manzanares said his ex-girlfriend claimed the adoption was at the behest of Mormon leaders.
“I think Utah has a long history of being pro-family, and pro-adoption and I think there's a heavy influence from the LDS Church and I'm LDS,” said Hutchins, who has served in Church leadership.
According to LDS Church doctrine, children are entitled to be raised by a married couple.
“A lot of people misinterpret that and apply that in a way that suggests an ends-justifies-the-means approach,” said Hutchins. “‘Let’s do what we have to do to get these children adopted and into two-parent homes.’”
Manzanares’ lawsuit, along with others spearheaded by Hutchins, has drawn national attention to the plight of unwed fathers dealing with Utah’s laws and created pressure on lawmakers to amend the rules governing paternal rights in adoptions.
But conservative groups, such as the Sutherland Institute, a powerful Salt Lake City-based think tank, have joined efforts to keep legislation intact, testifying at legislative hearings and filing amicus briefs opposing unwed fathers’ court petitions to overturn adoptions.
“We’re interested in making sure that our laws reflect the realities of family life and particularly that they protect the most vulnerable people in family which is, of course, children,” said Bill Duncan, an Institute attorney.
According to Duncan’s argument, children are always better off with married couples – even if they’re strangers – than with single, unwed parents – even if fraud was committed to get them adopted.
‘Daddy, where have you been?’
Some of the fathers in Hutchins’ lawsuit have fought all the way to the Utah Supreme Court and suffered heartbreaking losses along the way. Manzanares said his six-year battle cost him almost $300,000 in legal fees alone.
But he’s the only one to have some success. In a groundbreaking 2012 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that he had been wrongly denied a say in his daughter’s adoption. They sent the case back to a lower court, which has granted him visitation rights. He met his daughter Kaia, then less than a year old, for the first time in late 2009 at a brief court-ordered visitation.
“I remember her walking in, the cutest little thing,” he remembered. “I just saw myself. I got tingles all over my body.”
Years then passed without him getting to see her. In a carefully staged play session last year, an attending child therapist introduced Manzanares simply as a friend, and the two played with toys together. Then, he said, something remarkable happened.
“I’m laying down and she sits on my lap,” Manzanares said. “She looks at me in the eyes, puts the dolls down and says, ‘Daddy, where have you been?’”
Manzanares left that encounter in tears, but thrilled that his daughter recognized him.
Since then, Manzanares and Kaia, who is now 5 years old, have been spending more court-ordered quality time together at his New Mexico home, including a few days around Christmas and a week over spring break, with a longer visit planned for the summer.
“It’s not a lot of time but when she’s here, she’s in her element. She’s having fun, playing with the other children,” he said. “She’s not asking about her other home. She’s comfortable.”
For Manzanares and other single fathers in his position, a small victory came last month when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill requiring birth mothers to live in Utah for at least 90 days or file information with the court about the birth father. Before the mother can put the baby up for adoption, the court can also order the mother to notify the father.
But it’s little consolation to Manzanares. While he believes his daughter’s adoptive parents – her biological aunt and uncle – love her and should remain in her life, he is continuing his legal battle for full custody.
“I don't feel I should be sharing custody with the people that dragged this out, that fraudulently did this to this child.” he said. “Because at some point she's going to know this and she’s going to realize what happened to her.”