Sunday, March 28, 1999

Justin's case 'one in a million'


Most adoptive parents have little to fear

BY SUSAN VELA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The emotional adoption tug-of-war involving 2-year-old Justin has grabbed headlines since mid-February, but the court ruling returning him to his biological parents in Covington has spawned numerous other questions.

        Some couples considering adoption wonder whether a similar court battle could ensnare them. Others wonder how long the appeals process might last, because Justin will not return to Covington until all appeals are over.

        Here are answers to some key questions:

        Q: What are the facts of the case?

A: Justin spent his first 11 months with his biological parents, Regina Moore and Jerry Dorning, an unmarried Covington couple who began thinking about placing Justin with Rich and Cheryl Asente of Girard, Ohio, in December 1997. The Asentes already had adopted their other son, Joey, now 3.

        Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning signed consent-to-adopt forms in January 1998, about a month before Justin went to live with the Asentes. He was with the couple and his brother 37 days when his biological parents made it known that they didn't want to go through with the adoption.

        The Ohio couple refused to give back the child. Since then, the two couples have been waging a legal battle for custody of Justin. A Kenton Circuit Court judge has ordered that he be returned to his biological parents when appeals are over. Until then, a visitation plan will be put in place.

        Q: What is the background of the case?

        A: A Columbus-based agency, Adoption Circle, handled the adoption of Joey. Attorneys handled the adoption of Justin. Court documents state that the attorney handling proceedings in Kentucky stopped representing the biological parents soon after they changed their minds.

        Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning hired another attorney and then

        sought out the help of the Northern Kentucky Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to lower-income people.

        In August, the biological couple filed a civil lawsuit demanding that Justin be returned to them immediately.

        Q: What happened?

Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe ruled in the biological parents' favor, saying Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning were not fully aware of the decision they made when they signed consent-to-adopt forms.

        The Asentes appealed her decision, claiming that Kenton Circuit Court should not have jurisdiction in the case because Justin had been living in Ohio. The appeal was denied, and a trial was held on Feb. 4.

        In a Feb. 11 written opinion, she said Justin should be returned to his biological parents and invalidated the consent-to-adopt forms that were supposed to be irrevocable after 20 days.

        The judge said Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning had signed them with the distinct understanding that they had until a March 26 hearing to change their minds. The Asentes have appealed this decision.

        Q: What now?

A: Justin remains with the Asentes. He is supposed to begin visiting his biological parents within the next week. The visits are to happen at the Asentes' home.

        Depending on how Justin responds, the visits could become overnight stays at his biological parents' home in Covington in about three months.

        However, he is supposed to remain with the Asentes until the appeals process is over.

        Q: How long will that last?

        A: There's no telling.

        An attorney for Mr. Dorning has said it could take up to a year, perhaps two. But an attorney for the Asentes said it could last two to five years.

        The Asentes' appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals is pending. The couple also has the option of appealing the judge's visitation plan.

        Meanwhile, the Asentes filed a petition to adopt Justin last June in Trumbull County Probate Court in Ohio. That petition originally was dismissed because a Trumbull County probate judge said the adoption couldn't proceed until it was clear that Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning's parental rights had been severed. Parental rights of biological parents must be terminated before any adoption takes place.

        But the adoption petition has been revived. Special Judge R.R. Denny Clunk, who already has said the Asentes are more suited to be Justin's parents, will hear evidence at an April 2 hearing as to which state has jurisdiction of Justin's case.

        Attorneys for the biological parents have filed a motion to not have the hearing take place. They say in court documents that Ohio has no jurisdiction in the case and that Judge Summe has invalidated the consent-to-adopt forms, which means Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning still have parental rights of Justin.

        Q: What is the possible fall-out?

        A: Some adoptive parents are worried about the implications of this case. They are concerned that Justin's case will make it easier for biological parents to reclaim the children that they once chose to put up for adoption.

        Every state has different adoption laws, but attorneys and adoption practitioners said there's little to fear if parental rights of biological parents are terminated properly before a child is placed with the adopting family.

        Q: How often does this happen?

        A: Rarely, if ever. Attorneys and adoption practitioners say Justin's case is one in a million.

        “Here's what I think about these cases,” said Richard Pearlman, a psychiatric social worker for Chicago-based Family Resource Center, a non-profit welfare agency that specializes in adoptions. “They make good news but they're an aberration. You have more to fear from getting in a car accident. The fears are not valid.

        “It'll make a good story and it'll be a tragedy for the family. But it has nothing to do with what happens every day in an adoption.”

        Nationwide, about 120,000 adoptions take place a year. Less than 1 percent are contested.

        Q: Has anything changed since the highly-publicized cases of Baby Jessica and Baby Richard?

        A: The cases of Baby Richard and Baby Jessica involved biological fathers receiving custody several years after adoptions occurred.

        The adoptive parents had little legal recourse, because laws in most states give a lot of leeway to birth parents.

        A Louisville attorney concurred that Kentucky follows this national trend: The rights of children come first; biological parents, second; and adoptive parents, last.

        Still, the Baby Richard case inspired the states of Illinois and Ohio to establish a putative father registry. Single fathers must register within 30 days after a child's birth if they hope to preserve custody rights.

        Similar Kentucky legislation was rejected last spring in the state House of Representatives.

       



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