Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Updated 2/10/11

      My name is Roberto. I am a 22 year old living in North Carolina, unfortunately one of the many states that does not interpret fathers’ and mothers’ rights equally under the law. I learned I was having a son in August of 2008 when I was 19. The baby’s mother and I had recently stopped dating.  I had dropped out of high school and I was unemployed. I was in no position to become a parent. However, from the moment I learned about my baby, ready or not, I knew that I was going to have to take responsibility and straighten out my life, Not only for myself, but for my child. I grew up without my father and I was not going to let that happen to my son.

      I called to check on how my growing baby was doing every day. The mother and I went to doctor's appointments and counseling so we could plan and be better prepared. I was very nervous because I knew this would be a huge undertaking.  But as the big day approached, I got more and more excited. I got a job and moved back into my mother's home so I could have a stable place to live with my child. Although my mother knew that I was too young, she could not have been happier to have a grandchild. We began to get ready, setting up his room, buying clothes, making plans.  My entire family anxiously awaited the birth of my baby.
     As his mother got further along in her pregnancy, she and I grew farther apart. She no longer wanted me to attend doctor's appointments, no longer kept me updated. My daily calls often went unanswered.  Finally, she mentioned that she was thinking about adoption. I immediately told her that I would not agree to an adoption and that if I had to, I would raise him on my own. She had plans to move out of her parents' and go to college.  I volunteered to take care of our son and let her see him whenever she wanted. Adoption was not an option for me.

My son with his grandma for the first time

      My baby's due date was March 5. I told his mother every day to let me know when she went in to labor; I would be there. I could not miss my son's birth. I also shared with her that I wanted to name him Ryan, after my brother.  On Sunday, March 1st at 10 AM, I received the call I had been waiting for.  However, instead of rushing to the hospital, I sat at home, in shock. My son had already been born. She had gone into labor the previous Friday night and had him on Saturday.  She and her family had picked out his name. She would not tell me where they were or how I could visit them. I called the hospital where I thought they were and was told the mother was not a patient. Apparently her name was incorrect in their computer and I was not on the birth certificate.
      I did not see my son until he and his mother got home from the hospital. When I arrived, his mother's cousins from Georgia were there.  These were the people that my son's biological mother had chosen to adopt him. I told them all again that I was not going to let them take my son away from me.  They informed me that legally, I had no power to stop them.

The first time I met my son

     Over the next couple of days, I was able to see my new baby for a few hours.  Then the mother's parents started answering all of my calls and would not allow me to talk to her.  They refused to tell me where my son was or how I could see him. Apparently the adoptive parents had already taken him to Georgia.
      I frantically began researching my options.  By the grace of God, I found a lawyer who agreed to help me.  She realized that I was being robbed of my son because his mother's family knew I did not have the money to fight them.   She agreed to a fraction of what she would normally charge as a retainer.  To me, it was still a huge amount of money that my family had to help me pay. Over the next 21 months, this she did absolutely everything she could to legally reunite me with my son.  My heart ached every day I spent away from him, knowing that I was missing important milestones in his life and that he was bonding with his adoptive parents instead of me.
Visiting from Georgia

    Several months passed before I got my day in court.  When the adoptive parents came back to attend the court date, they stayed with my son's mom. I was finally allowed to see him for a few precious hours.
     In court, they argued that I deserved to have my parental rights terminated. According to the law, a father must provide consistent and reasonable support to his child and maintain communication with the mother during the pregnancy. The judge found that I had done everything that I should have done to preserve my rights. The adoption was overturned!

     At this point, my son's mother began to argue that she should have full custody. She made it clear that she was going to do whatever she could to keep me from seeing my son.  She appeared unconcerned about the effect on him, and determined to make me miserable by keeping us apart. The judge ruled that my son would stay with the adoptive mother, who was temporarily renting an apartment in the area, and his biological mother.  I would have gradually increasing visitation. At the end of this schedule, he would assess how things went and grant temporary custody until the appeal that the adoptive parents were filing was decided by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
     The visitations were great!  My son was happy and comfortable with me and my family. He slept well, ate well, and I was hugely relieved to see that the sudden transition did not seem to upset him. When we returned to court I was optimistic, my son was safe and happy with me, his mother had given him up for adoption, how could I not be awarded custody?  It never occurred to me how far the mother's family would go to keep my baby from me.
     The adoptive mother was supportive of his biological mother having the baby because, after all, they were cousins, she could then also have more time with him. Besides, she was the one that relinquished him into the adoptive mother's care in the first place. Court was a mud-slinging contest with both of them and their families against me. The judge awarded his biological mother primary custody. I was only allowed to see my son every other weekend and for 3 hours every other Thursday.  I was devastated. I put everything I had to bring my son back home and now I was practically a babysitter.

     Throughout the next year his mother took advantage of every opportunity to abuse the power that she had over me. I began paying her child support as my attorney advised, but she took me to court anyway because she was not satisfied with the amount. She started college and placed my son in the care of multiple babysitters that I had never met or even heard of. She left me a message that I would be picking my son up from a babysitter about an hour before I was on my way for my Thursday visit. She was paying them to stay with my son for the entire day on Tuesday and Thursday. On multiple occasions I tried to discuss taking over his care during these times so he would be with someone familiar and she would be able to save the money she was spending on them. She refused to talk about it. She made his doctor's appointments which she was court ordered to inform me of, and would not tell me until the day before they were scheduled.

       The more and more vocal my son became the more clear it became that he needed more time with me. I could hear him yelling "daddy, daddy, daddy!" every time I came to the door to begin my visitation. Every time I dropped him off he would cling to me and cry. Everything I read and heard stated that at his young age he needed me in his life much more frequently.
The adoption case was finally heard by the Court of Appeals. They called for oral arguments which is extremely rare. Months later we heard that the ruling was upheld, the adoption was overturned, and we could proceed to address permanent custody. You can read the court decision here.

      Throughout the year it took to get back into court for a custody hearing it became clear that his mother was not giving him the quality of care he was receiving with me. She acted erratic and unstable and cared more about hurting me than doing what was best for him. Power over him was power over me, and that is what she wanted. She and her family continued to act as if I was an unfit parent, as if I was the same partying, irresponsible person that I had been before I learned that I was becoming a father. They were acting as if I was stupid and did not know my own child.
      I finally got my chance to be heard in court, after several continuances. As the biological mother, her mother and her father spoke on the stand, it became clear that while in her custody she was not the main caregiver for my son. My lawyer asked her mother to take us through each day of a typical week in their home. My son's mother was not the one waking up with him, she was often at school or work during the day, and she was only home to put him to sleep one night a week. The judge saw that she had shut me out of my baby’s life with no real regard for who else was caring for him. He acknowledged that I made every effort to be with my son as much as possible and was the one actually caring for him when he was with me.
      Almost three weeks after the case was heard the judge ruled that I was to become the primary custodian beginning January 2, 2011. He stated in his ruling that I am the warm, loving, attentive parent that my son needs and I am mentally fit to make caring and responsible decisions for him. This was the best birthday and Christmas present I could have asked for. Now that he is 21 months old, my son and I will finally have a real life together.

     So my story has a happy ending. However, now I am over $30,000 in debt to my attorney. She has been very reasonable so far and allowed me to make payments, but what I can afford has hardly made a dent in this debt. I also face the harsh reality that my legal battle may not be over. After all of this I don’t believe that my son's mother will let this fight end. I’m afraid that she will continue to take me to court. Honestly, I can sit in debt up to my eyeballs, play with my son all day and be a perfectly happy man. But I know that I need to do everything in my power to move forward and build a future for my son. I need to go back to school. I need to get a degree so that I can get a better job than waiting tables. I need to set a good example for my child. I need to be the best that I can be so that no one can ever take him away from me again. 
     I'd like to add on behalf of my lawyer, she did me a huge favor by taking my case knowing full well I could not afford legal representation. She lost money on me, not being compensated for her time, nor that of her employees, the millions of papers she printed, copied and mailed to me, opposing lawyers and courts. She was happy to be able to help, however this loss did put her in the position to not be able to take on any more pro-bono cases. As sad as it is, there is very little in the way of legal help for those who do not have much expendable income, and people like us often unjustly lose our rights because we cannot afford to litigate. This is another reason that I find it so important that I pay her all that I owe. I caught a very lucky break, and I'd like to make sure she can afford to help another parent like me. Money couldn't have paid for a better attorney.
     This is where I ask for your help. If there is any support you can give, no matter how small, it is much appreciated. All donations will go directly towards attorney’s fees first and then into a college fund for my brilliant son . If nothing else, please let my story shine a light on how often father’s rights are ignored. I would never wish what happened to my son and I on anyone and I pray that reading this may give another father the encouragement he needs to keep fighting for his child.Thank you so much for listening!

     Up until February 3, just a few days ago, my son's adoptive parents still had one final avenue for appeal, called a Petition for Discretionary Review, where after being denied a first appeal, parties have the option to Appeal once more, suggesting that the court revisit the case, to which North Carolina Supreme Court simply chooses to accept or deny. Their final appeal was denied!

 I've been finding a lot about my case online. You can read the articles here:
Sodoma Law (Under heading "Unwed Father's Consent for Adoption)
Family Law (Under the heading "Adoption", entitled "In re the adoption of K.A.R., decided NC Court of Appeals..."
The NC Supreme Court decisions PDF (My case number 362P10, In re the Adoption...)

Thank you all for your support so far!

Calling the dog, Mona


     Kade is doing awesome. We are looking forward to his birthday soon. Talking, much in his own language, and generally being as charming as ever. Keep your fingers crossed for me though- we're starting to get a few glimpses of the "terrible twos".