Saturday, April 03, 1999

Judge: Ohio has jurisdiction in Justin case

Says boy's best interest is the issue

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Judge R.R. Denny Clunk.
(AP photo)
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        WARREN, Ohio — An Ohio judge ruled Friday that Ohio has jurisdiction in the adoption case of 2-year-old Justin, and said the adoption petition filed by Rich and Cheryl Asente of Girard in June should not be dismissed.

        It's time, said visiting Judge R.R. Denny Clunk of Stark County, sitting in Trumbull County Probate Court, that “somebody, someplace, some court, sometime should address the issue of the best interest” of Justin.

        If Kentucky will not provide such a forum, he said, Ohio will.

        In February, Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe ruled that Justin should be returned to the custody of his biological parents, Regina Moore and Jer ry Dorning, an unmarried Covington couple. Judge Summe ruled they made an uninformed decision when they let Justin go live with the Asentes a year ago.

        After hearing about two hours of testimony Friday, Judge Clunk conceded that his ruling “flies in the face of the Kentucky decision,” but said Ohio is Justin's home state and ordered a best-interest hearing.

        The conflicting rulings from the Ohio and Kentucky judges could mean the case eventually will play out in federal courts.

        Judge Clunk, who promised a written decision within a week, said testimony proved that Justin had lived in Ohio for six consecutive months.

        His ruling was immediately hailed as “heroic” by Hear My Voice, a Michigan-based group that promotes the rights of children in adoption cases. Debbie Grabarkiewicz, case coordinator for Hear My Voice, said Judge Clunk's decision means “the critical element of the best interest of the child” will now be considered.

Justin's biological parents, Regina Moore and Jerry Dorning, listen to testimony.
(AP photo)
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        Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning, who live in public housing, have been battling for Justin during most of the last year. They signed consent-to-adopt forms before Justin went to live with the Asentes in February 1998, but with the understanding that they would have until a March 26, 1998, hearing to change their minds.

        That hearing never happened because, on the day it was supposed to occur, they made it known that they wanted Justin back. The Asentes refused.

        Judge Summe ruled the consent-to-adopt forms were invalid.

        Judge Clunk also said Friday he wanted DNA proof that Mr. Dorning is Justin's father.

        “In Ohio, he's a non-entity,” said the judge, noting that Ohio has a putative father registry. After a child is born, a single father must register within 30 days or forsake any future right to contest an adoption.

        “I don't want another Baby Richard or a Baby Jessica,” the judge said. “We already have a Baby Justin case.”

Richard and Cheryl Asente leave the courtroom after the judge's ruling.
(AP photo)
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        Stephanie Dietz, representing Mr. Dorning, noted that Kentucky has no such law. She said she was disappointed with the outcome of Friday's hearing but said she wasn't totally surprised by Judge Clunk's decision.

        It seemed he was giving the Asentes and their attorneys a lot of leeway, she said. In another proceeding several weeks ago, Judge Clunk said the Asentes would be the better parents for Justin.

        The Asentes have filed appeals with the Kentucky Court of Appeals and Kentucky Supreme Court.

        Ms. Dietz said Judge Clunk's written opinion most likely will prompt Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning to file appeals in U.S. District Court and with the Ohio Court of Appeals.

        Susan Eisenman, one of the Asentes' attorneys, had the burden of proving Friday that Ohio has jurisdiction of Justin. Mrs. Asente seemed to provide the most crucial testimony.

        She verified that she and her husband first met Justin in Kentucky on Feb. 14, 1998. He moved into their Girard, Ohio, home three days later.

        She talked about the child's play group, storytime, music and church activities. She also testified that she and Mr. Asente have relatives in Ohio and have no ties to Kentucky.

        The goal was to establish that Ohio is Justin's home state and that he has strong ties to the community. When Ms. Eisenman asked Mrs. Asente to describe whom she lives with, her response was: “My husband and my two sons, Joseph and Justin.”

        After the hearing, the Asentes said they were pleased, but refused further comment. Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning left the courtroom without comment.

        Justin remains with the Asentes. Judge Summe has said the child will remain with them until the appeals process is over.


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