Sunday, July 30, 2000

Custody battle goes on

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Pool time, story books, sidewalk chalk and fraternal bonding all mark the summer days of 3-year-old Justin, a Kentucky native who has lived the last two years in Ohio.

        The activities underscore the child's strengthening ties to Rich and Cheryl Asente, the Girard, Ohio, couple who want to adopt him, while his birth parents, Jerry Dorning and Regina Moore of Covington, continue to fight for his return.

        The questions seem to be these: When will the bonding stop? How old will Justin be when the adults finally put their legal battles to rest? In the end, will Justin's young life be reminiscent of Baby Jessica's?

        The little girl had polarized the country over the issues of the rights of children, birth parents and adoptive parents when, in 1993, she was transferred under court order from the home of Jan and Roberta DeBoer of Ann Arbor, Mich., to birth parents Dan and Cara Schmidt in Iowa. The couples had battled for more than two years in Iowa and Michigan courts.

        On Wednesday, attorneys involved in the custody tug-of-war over Justin will give oral arguments before the Kentucky Court of Appeals in Louisville.

        They will focus on Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe's February and March 1999 decisions, when she ruled that Justin should be returned to his birth parents. She has said they did not make an informed decision when they let him live with the Asentes and Justin's full birth brother, Joey, now 4, a year before.

        Justin was born Feb. 28, 1997, and began living with the Asentes on Feb. 17, 1998. His birth parents began the fight to regain custody of the red-haired, blue-eyed boy about a month later in March 1998 and it has been in the courts since.

        The case is also in Ohio courts, where the Asentes have been trying to adopt Justin. On Aug. 22, attorneys will argue jurisdictional matters — which state should handle the case — before Ohio Supreme Court justices.

        Those involved in the case say there will be no conclusion for up to five years. Yet the Asentes, who have accrued more than $300,000 in legal fees, are confident they will prevail.

        Mr. Asente noted that Justin now has strong ties to Ohio, although the child has begun staying with his birth parents on the weekends. He doesn't believe the youngster feels any connection to Northern Kentucky.

        “He has no ties except to his adoptive mother, father and brother,” said Monsignor Martin Sufko, pastor of St. Rose Catholic Church in Girard, Ohio. The Asentes belong to St. Rose.

        The boy's birth parents do not talk to the media about the case.

        Dick Cullison of the Northern Kentucky Legal Aid Society will represent Ms. Moore at the Aug. 22 hearing. The case is on an expedited track with both the Kentucky Court of appeals and Ohio Supreme Court.

        However, Mr. Cullison predicts another year will pass before there is any sort of resolution, despite ongoing settlement negotiations.


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