Friday, June 13, 2003

Custody fight for Justin at Square 1

Judge told to rule in 'best interest'

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Justin, right, with his brother Joseph in a Aug. 17, 2000 file photo.
(AP/Chuck Crow photo)
| ZOOM |
Justin Moore's first day of summer vacation was dramatically interrupted Thursday, when the Kentucky Supreme Court issued an opinion that could steer the course of the first-grader's future.

The justices reversed a September 2000 appellate decision, citing "substantial evidence" that the Ohio boy's unmarried biological parents - Regina Moore and Jerry Dorning of Burlington, Ky. - did not fully understand what they were doing when they signed adoption consent forms in 1998.

After 16 months of reviewing the legal battles holding the boy's life in limbo, the justices in Frankfort said the case should return to where it all began: Kenton County Circuit Court.

Judge Patricia Summe, who has taken heat for ruling against the boy's potential adoptive parents, Rich and Cheryl Asente of Girard, Ohio, has been ordered to determine the 6-year-old boy's future custody based on his "present best interest."

The decision to center the case on what's best for Justin sent chills down the backs of his biological parents and left the Asentes equally unnerved.

[IMAGE] Jerry Dorning and Regina Moore
(Enquirer file photos)
[IMAGE] Rich and Cheryl Asente took custody of Justin in 1998
Attorneys for both sets of parents huddled with their clients Thursday morning, offering them legal advice and shoulders to lean on. The Supreme Court's opinion was 46 pages.

Even though the Supreme Court ruling seemed to be a victory for the biological parents, it also could be viewed as a victory for the Asentes because it mandates use of the best-interest standard.

"The fact remains that Moore and Dorning voluntarily signed consents with the knowledge and the intent that the consents would facilitate Justin's adoption. That was their intention," said Justice James Keller, who wrote the opinion.

"Because we find that Moore and Dorning have waived their superior rights to custody of Justin, we direct the trial court to adjudicate the rival custody claims under the best-interest standards."

The Asentes, a middle-class, college-educated couple living in Girard, Ohio, near Youngstown, were in a daze when they talked over the phone to Debbie Grabarkiewicz of Hear My Voice, an Ann Arbor, Mich., group that supports the rights of children in adoption cases.

"They're quite nervous. They're concerned about it going before Judge Summe. Cheryl was feeling nauseous and upset," Grabarkiewicz said. "It's taken such a long time to get this ruling. But they're certainly willing to go the distance with their son. This has been nearly a year and a half of waiting for a little child."

Attorney Stephanie Dietz met with Moore and Dorning in her Crestview Hills, Ky., office and told them to really think about how they'll face the best-interest hearing. Every single action - from how they interact in court to how they handle their private lives - could come under the judge's review.

Both couples were unwilling to talk Thursday.

Dorning has filed for divorce but remains married to another woman. He and Moore had another son, Joey, 7, who already was legally adopted by the Asentes when Moore and Dorning let Justin go live with the Asentes in February 1998.

"It almost seems like we're starting out at where we were years ago," Dietz said. "This is at least a step to bring some closure to this case for Justin's sake. We're just hopeful that all of the parents can have some sort of meaningful role in Justin's life."

Moore and Dorning "would be wonderful parents for Justin," said Dietz, a mother of two. "There's not a time when (Regina) hasn't asked about my kids. That just speaks volumes to me as to the type of person she is."

Moore and Dorning signed consent-to-adopt forms a few weeks before they said goodbye to Justin so that he could live with the Asentes and Joey.

Although the forms indicated that their signatures were irrevocable after 20 days, they continue to say that they were told that they had until a March 1998 hearing to change their minds.

Meanwhile, Justin and Joey left St. Rose School on Wednesday, looking forward to a long summer of baseball games and Boy Scout activities. Huge Disney fans, the redheaded boys have already sat and laughed before a big-screen showing of Finding Nemo.

Family friend Janet Duricy of Howland, Ohio, said the boys are growing so rapidly that she's astounded. She's confident that the Asentes will stick to a normal, active summer routine but knows that, despite their best efforts, they haven't been able to shield Justin from certain truths.

The child, who visits Moore and Dorning according to court orders, knows that he's at the center of a contentious custody battle.

"He's known for a long time," Duricy said. "It just gets harder as the kids get older."

Case timeline


Feb. 28: Justin Moore born.

Nov. 14: Asentes asked by Regina Moore to adopt Justin.


Feb. 17: Justin moves to Girard, Ohio, with Asentes.

Aug. 17: Moore and Jerry Dorning file for custody of Justin.


Sept. 15: Kentucky Court of Appeals rules Justin should remain with the Asentes.

Dec. 18: Moore and Dorning petition the Supreme Court.


April 25: Kentucky Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.


Feb. 15: Kentucky Supreme Court hears arguments about the consent forms signed by Moore and Dorning.


June 12: Kentucky Supreme Court reverses the appellate court's decision, sending the case back to Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe, who must award custody based on Justin's best interest.


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