Editor’s note: Libertas has been closely following the stories of birth fathers around the country who are defrauded by mothers who exploit weaknesses in Utah law to put their children up for adoption over the wishes—and without the consent of—such fathers. Recently, several of these fathers have filed a class action civil suit against the state of Utah.
The following is an edited transcription of an interview Libertas conducted with Rob Manzanares, one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit and one of the more notable cases in Utah. Manzanares has been involved in court battles for years, costing nearly half a million dollars, to win custody of his daughter, Kaia. The comments in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of Libertas Institute.
Libertas Institute: Tell us about yourself and your story.
Rob Manzanares: My name is Rob Manzanares and I’m from Colorado. My story is about my love for my daughter. It begins in 2008 when I was living in a serious relationship with my former girlfriend—my daughter’s mother. We had moved in together and were planning on starting a family together. We took steps toward that end, probably faster than we should have, but we were definitely taking the right steps to become a family.
We found out we were pregnant about 8 months into our relationship. For me, that was the most exciting day of my life. I was 30 years old at the time and had just finished a masters degree. I was in between jobs and was figuring out what direction to take in my career. I always loved children and knew I wanted to have a family after finishing my education and so I was extremely excited to find out that we were pregnant. We sat down together and started making educated decisions on how to proceed with the pregnancy and how to raise a child together. My former girlfriend also had a six year old daughter from a previous marriage who was living with us. It was a really happy time around our household when we found out we were going to have a child.
The feeling inside that you get as a father is indescribable: you are happy, excited, and a little scared of the unknown.
The day we found out that we were pregnant truly was one of the happiest days of my life. We started going to doctors appointments and doing all the other things expectant parents do. At 12 weeks we went in for the first ultrasound. I’ll never forget all the emotion I felt after seeing a being that is half of who you are on a computer monitor from the ultrasound machine—I remember thinking “that’s my child, that person is part me!” The feeling inside that you get as a father is indescribable: you are happy, excited, and a little scared of the unknown. It was two or three days after that appointment when things started to change dramatically in our home. The mother determined very quickly that she was considering an adoption—that came like a cold towel across the face—and I couldn’t comprehend what it was she was thinking. It was very strange to me—I would have never considered giving my child up for adoption.
One factor that may have played a part in the story was my girlfriend’s religious involvement. I don’t really have an opinion on it one way or the other but it probably was a component in her decision-making. About the time she became pregnant she started getting back involved more in her church—she is LDS. She told me she had sought advice from her bishop who thought that the best thing was to give this child up for adoption. I am not LDS so I wasn’t involved in these meetings or this counseling that she was going through, so I was really shocked wondering how this could happen. I asked her if I could also speak to her bishop to try and better understand why adoption was so important to the both of them. I never did get to speak to him but I think those discussions she was having were a big part of her decision to pursue adoption.
A couple weeks after that ultrasound we started the process of separating. Arguments would arise as she tried to get me to agree with adoption. This all took place as we were still living in Colorado. She moved out and I was soon contacted by the LDS Family Services adoption agency. They wanted me to come meet them at their offices—sort of coerce me, if you will, as I have learned they do to the fathers in these situations—to discuss my situation with them and get counseling. I declined. They continued to harass me so I hired an attorney. The month I hired an attorney in Colorado they stopped harassing me.
I was suffering through a lot of sleepless nights with worry and devastation. All I wanted was for my child to be okay…
At this point, I was severely concerned and worried after our separation because I received threats and suggestions from the mother about abortion. At one point the mother told me that this child was neither of ours but was like a business for her (the mother). I was suffering through a lot of sleepless nights with worry and devastation. All I wanted was for my child to be okay and I had no idea what would happen to her.
All along after our separation I was in contact with the mother, trying my hardest not to be harassing or stalking her. However, I wanted to take responsibility and provide the needed child support and funding for her pregnancy. I tried giving her money and payments but she denied all my offers and would not receive any support from me. I thought it strange and even my attorney started to think that she perhaps she wasn’t going to go through an adoption after all.
About 8 months into the pregnancy, I received an email from the mother stating that I was nothing but a “chromosome donor,” that neither of us would benefit from fighting over this, and that she was going to go visit a sick relative in Utah for a couple weeks. She also wrote that when she got back we would re-discuss adoption. After that email, I told my attorney that I thought we needed to file a paternity action in order to prevent adoption. Fortunately, Colorado is one of the few states where you can actually file a paternity action before a child is born. This allowed me to declare paternity for my child prior to her birth. We filed that paternity declaration, along with an injunction against adoption, since I had the feeling that she was likely to follow through with her statement that she was going to proceed with adoption. That injunction would have stopped any sort of adoption process in Colorado cold in its tracks.
On the exact same day as our hearing was scheduled in Colorado our child was three days old and the mother was standing before a judge in Utah giving my daughter up for adoption.
After she had been gone for a week, she missed a hearing in Colorado that we were both supposed to appear at. She requested a continuance for that hearing, claiming she was out of town. It was completely unknown to me at the time that on the exact same day as our hearing was scheduled in Colorado our child was three days old and the mother was standing before a judge in Utah giving my daughter up for adoption. Such hearings in Utah courts are quick and back-to-back—15 minutes and it was over. At the missed hearing in Colorado, the judge re-scheduled. I am feeling thankful at that point that I will be able to be a part of my child’s life in some way after she is born. I was feeling good because I was thinking the Colorado courts would prevent a unilateral decision for adoption and I was much more confident after declaring paternity for my daughter—thinking all the while, of course, that she had not been born yet. Little did I know my child was already in someone else’s custody in Utah.
The Colorado court hearing was scheduled on Wednesday, February 20th, 2008. The following Monday I heard that the mother had returned to work with no child. After getting that phone call I was scrambling and calling around to different hospitals. I even went to a couple of hospitals in person, thinking I might find my daughter. Of course you can’t get into a maternity ward in hospitals because they are completely locked down from any outside visitors. I was trying to look through the glass window partitions trying to see if I can see my daughter—I truly had no clue that the mother had gone to Utah to deliver the child like she did. I actually didn’t even think she had left the state of Colorado. I thought her story about visiting a relative was just her excuse to not show up in court.
So there I was earnestly looking for our child. I even called the mother’s brother and sister in law, who actually had my daughter at the time, to ask if they knew anything about where my daughter was. They lied to me at the time and said they didn’t know and told me I would hear from the mother’s legal counsel. At this point, I am in complete devastation and fearful about all the unknown possibilities: has the mother sold my daughter? Is my daughter possibly dead from a late term abortion? Is she in an ICU somewhere? I was desperately looking for my child and am emotionally torn to pieces by this point because I have no idea what has happened.
Luckily, my attorney had scheduled a hearing so we could get in front of a judge in Colorado who then ordered the mother to tell me where my child was. It was then that I found out all the details of how my daughter was in Utah and how I was going to have to take the legal fight to a Utah court. At that point I was thinking that I would have a good case because the judge in Colorado had put me on the birth certificate and I had even hired legal counsel in Utah—one of the best attorneys in Utah for these types of cases. My attorney in Colorado also thought that it would work out and that it probably wouldn’t take more than six months to get my daughter. At least at this point I now knew that my child was not dead. Instead she was in an ICU and was stable and getting better. These little details started to give me some peace of mind; however, I could not imagine leaving my child in an ICU and not staying with her after her birth.
Judge Faust was actually so furious after hearing what had happened that he dismissed the adoption and told the adoptive family’s attorney to return the child to me in six days.
At this point in time I sincerely thought things would work out quite quickly—little did I know that I would have to wait six months just to get my first hearing in Utah court. For our first hearing we went before Judge Faust in Utah’s 3rd District Court. Judge Faust was actually so furious after hearing what had happened that he dismissed the adoption and told the adoptive family’s attorney to return the child to me in six days. This was on July 2nd, 2008. The adoptive family claimed they were out of town for the 4th of July holiday and would not be back soon enough. The judge still said they had to return the child. At this point I am so relieved thinking I have finally won custody of my daughter and that this nightmare is all over with. On the 7th day, after they should have already returned the child, Judge Faust vacated the decision and called for an evidentiary hearing in 30 days. We still felt confident we would be successful at that hearing too. However, one day in court turned into many as we navigated the Utah court system over the next two years.
Initially, we were just waiting for the judge to issue a decision after the evidentiary hearing. But the opposing counsel made a motion to remove the judge from the case. After that, the judge actually filed a bar complaint against the other attorney—the outcome of which I am still puzzled about. From that point on it seemed there was just a general procedural “fumbling” of the whole case over the course of the next two years. It was an emotional and legal roller-coaster as the court decisions went back and forth.
As a father, every minute of every day I was realizing that I was missing things in my daughter’s life. After the initial first six months, I have already missed her first smile, missed her first coo, missed her first roll-over, her first everything. After two years, I am wondering if she is walking now, what her first word was, what her personality is like, what her eye and hair color is, whether she is potty-trained or not yet, what her complexion is like. I am also realizing that she is bonding with her custodial parents who, in my view, have basically kidnapped her.
LI: Did it make it worse since the first court decision gave you the expectation that you were getting your child back very soon? How did that play a factor?
RM: It seriously destroyed me. I cannot explain all the emotions I felt. I even bought a carseat. In fact, over the course of those two years there were actually three separate occasions when I thought I was getting my daughter and I literally bought a different carseat for each stage of child size. That is how confident I felt. The judge had led me to believe that this was over and the decision was final. The first time in July I had the carseat, a diaper bag, the works. My mom had traveled with me and was there to assist. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Anybody knows that taking on an infant is not easy, but I was willing to do whatever it took and take on that full responsibility and make it work.
I became depressed feeling like there was no justice anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. I had done everything right.
I definitely think it made it worse thinking I had initially won the case. It was like a nightmare where you are being chased and you are almost to that room where you will be safe and then the door won’t open and so you run to another room, and room after room the doors won’t open. It was the worst emotional nightmare you can imagine. You bounce between happy to sad so frequently. I became depressed feeling like there was no justice anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. I had done everything right. I had filed all the right papers to claim responsibility for my child in my home state. My child should have never left the state of Colorado.
LI: After you navigated the court system in Utah, you ultimately ended up with an appeal before the Utah Supreme Court. Briefly summarize for us what their decision was.
RM: The Utah Supreme Court decision essentially overturned the adoption on its face. They said that the mother, the adoptive family, and their attorney had defrauded two states causing harm to me and my daughter. They said that this should never happen and they could no longer accept these outcomes in Utah—that the state should not allow fraud to be a part of adoptions. The decision seemed clear cut. The Utah Supreme Court remanded the case back to the 3rd District court in Utah after which it was then moved to district court in Colorado. In fact, one strange element to this case is that there was actually never a finalized legal adoption in Utah. For me, I felt my civil right to due process was violated because there was never a final legal adoption and yet I was denied custody of my child.
LI: The Colorado court, in deciding custody of your daughter, said that it was “mindful of the deceitful, fraudulent and outrageous conduct” involved in your case, but that the court would not “dwell on the past or give [the fraud] much weight.” Does it concern you that the underlying fraudulent action was disregarded in determining Kaia’s fate?
RM: Absolutely! I think that is a huge violation of any biological parent’s natural rights. I think the court has basically said it is fine for you to go to a local park as a two-parent family and just steal a child from a single parent. As long as you can stretch out the court process and get the case to fumble around long enough then you will, at a minimum, win primary care and joint custody with that rightful biological parent. As I think more about how this case has turned out, it makes me concerned for a military service member who might be deployed overseas in combat losing their child while absent. What if the other parent of a child dies and the deployed service member asks that the child be cared for by an extended family member until they return? Under this court decision, if that child is in the care of those people for more than six months that new family can file for guardianship or adoption of that child. While that scenario might be a little more of a stretch than my case, this is exactly what would be possible under this decision. This decision has set up a very scary and dangerous precedent.
LI: In the Colorado custody decision the court also referred to the adoptive parents as “psychological parents.” As her actual biological father, what is your reaction to that term? How do you feel about these people being called her “psychological parents?”
RM: I don’t think they can be called any sort of parents because of how they got that title—they got it by fraud, they got it by kidnapping, they got it by taking a child that was never theirs to take in the first place. They only ended up here through legal mischief which allowed them to fumble and delay legal proceedings long enough to gain that title. Now, has my daughter bonded with them? Absolutely; I will agree 100 percent that she has bonded with them and loves them. Do they love her? They most certainly do. Are they good parents? They are good parents to her. There is nothing wrong with the way they care for their other children or her.
I don’t think they can be called any sort of parents because of how they got that title—they got it by fraud, they got it by kidnapping…
The thing that disturbs me is simply how they obtained custody of my daughter in the first place. The “psychological parent” title really frustrates me though. It is a term that we have given too much weight to and we have given a lot of weight to a doctor in Utah who didn’t really do his job. His job was to reunify me with my daughter, and not to make custody decisions or generate opinions on the case. His opinion as a psychologist would mean that none of these children should ever be returned and can never develop that strong of a relationship with their biological parent. I think it is an absolute fallacy to say that no child can ever bond with their biological parent. We see stories all the time of adults who find their biological parents and bond with them and develop wonderful relationships with them.
LI: Did the court consider some sort of gradual weaning from her current environment where she is comfortable to ultimately living in your sole custody, instead of the joint custody arrangement? What about something that would ultimately result on you having custody instead of forever relying only on joint custody?
RM: We requested just that and argued for it. We obtained an opinion from the guardian at litem in the case who agreed with us that I should have sole decision-making and they recommended a long transition to primary care in my household. What we requested was a two to three year transition with the end result being primary care by me but also allowing the other family to be involved in her life even after I would have had full custody. I don’t think the court really considered that in their opinion. They rejected our proposal and opted instead for shared decision-making and primary care by the adoptive family. What I fear the court has not fully recognized is that one day this child is going to have a mind of her own and she is going to be able read the Utah Supreme Court decision for herself. I fear that one day she will read that and realize what happened to her and understand that her daddy did everything he could to be with her. She may realize that the case was fumbled so badly through the court system after fraud on the part of this family which kept her away from me—she may then turn on her adoptive parents.
LI: When you talk about this concept of “fumbling” through the courts and how this custody battle seems to have taken a long time during which your daughter’s relationship with her adoptive parents has undoubtedly become stronger, do you think this outcome would have been different had the court acted more quickly? Do you assign any portion of blame for this outcome to the court process itself?
I was only able to spend time with my daughter—someone who should never have been taken away from me in the first place—for an hour at a time under the supervision of a psychologist.
RM: Absolutely. One thing I would advocate for, that would help these cases tremendously, is some sort of expedited fast track for cases like this. To wait 15 months for the Supreme Court to make its decision? One year and 3 months! All while I am not spending any time with my child? That is unacceptable. My daughter does not know who I am and is going through what psychologists call the “critical years” between ages three and four where she is gaining an identity and recognizing who she is and what she likes and doesn’t like. That whole time that they were allowed to keep her during the Utah case put me at such a huge disadvantage for the later custody decision in Colorado. Then to wait another two years for the actual custody hearing during which time my entire focus is on waiting to re-integrate with my daughter was another huge error.
Here I am left trying to enter my daughter’s life after years of delay and only then on a very limited basis. I was only able to spend time with my daughter—someone who should never have been taken away from me in the first place—for an hour at a time under the supervision of a psychologist. I also had to wait for the right time when the therapist said it would be okay to tell her I was her real father. It is definitely devastating for me and these cases to be fumbled through the court system for so long because of the other parties. I put a lot of the blame on the attorneys out there that represent these other parties for causing these unreasonable delays.
LI: Your class action lawsuit indicates that you and the other plaintiffs represent at least over 300 individuals “whose constitutional rights to due process and other fundamental civil rights have been violated.” In your mind, why has this injustice been occurring so long?
RM: I think it requires somebody taking their case through the full term—taking it as far as I have taken it. I had a great opportunity to take this case on appeal to the Supreme Court but many of these cases never get to that point and can easily drain you of money. I have not even talked about the tremendous financial devastation I have gone through. You are looking at nearly $100,000 a year for the last six years of my life—a half million dollars in all for travel costs, legal costs, and attorney fees, both in Utah and in Colorado. It is time for a change in the law now but it took someone following their case all the way to the top.
Kaia should have been returned immediately when she was born so that I wouldn’t have lost any time with her to begin with.
I really want to open Utah’s eyes to what has been happening with fraud immunity and how unconstitutional that is. It needed something to happen; fortunately, now we are starting to see these cases change in the direction of fathers. It took the Utah Supreme Court justices realizing that the previous outcomes were not what they wanted to see in the state. I think it just required that amount of time for them to realize. I think there are even more cases that are not well known; perhaps in the thousands of cases where there were fathers that just couldn’t fight. It’s interesting how people in Colorado react when they hear about my case—their gut reaction is that this never should have happened and that Kaia should have been returned immediately when she was born so that I wouldn’t have lost any time with her to begin with. People are surprised when I explain the legal bureaucracy and complexity of the system and the different laws Utah and Colorado both have. To me it shouldn’t be any more complex than filing a declaration of paternity.
LI: Talking about legal declarations of paternity, critics might argue that if you are really concerned about your child then you, or other similarly situated fathers, should have married the mother before hand so that you had those paternity rights automatically as a married father. How do you respond to that idea—the idea that because you were not married to the mother you essentially forfeited your claim on your children by default?
RM: I think it is a bit of an ignorant view based on the times we are in now. The nuclear two-parent family is increasingly unlikely in our society. I have heard recently that over 50% of children will grow up in a split or divorced home. Many children initially adopted by two-parent families still end up in a single-parent home. I don’t know that every situation is perfect and that marriage will always work in every situation. I also don’t think that bringing a child into this world should constitute a marriage that could end up in divorce. I feel that such an argument really just doesn’t have much merit anymore.
My daughter is still half or me whether I am married to the mother or not—she has my genes in her and I am half of who she is.
LI: As a father that is trying to assert your parental rights, do you think those rights should be dependent or conditional upon obtaining a marriage license from the government?
RM: Absolutely not; I don’t think parental rights are, or should be, conditional. My daughter is still half or me whether I am married to the mother or not—she has my genes in her and I am half of who she is.
LI: There are a variety of lawsuits from your case now. There was another one you filed recently against the birth mother, the adoptive parents, and their attorneys in federal court seeking $120 million in damages that alleges a “clear cut case of an illegal, fraud-ridden adoption being accomplished through deceptive and clandestine conduct.” The suit argues that these individuals essentially kidnapped your daughter from you. Why are you filing a civil lawsuit rather than a criminal one if in fact these people fraudulently adopted or kidnapped your child?
RM: I think that because Utah and other states have allowed these fraudulent adoptions and have not gone after the people involved in such cases criminally that there was no grounds to seek a criminal case. In our original case in Utah we brought up the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) and the Utah Supreme Court justices even asked for a supplemental briefing of the act in light of this case. I think Utah is starting to open their eyes to the possibility that perhaps this behavior truly is kidnapping covered under the act and is being carried out by criminal means. Ultimately, in our case, the justices didn’t accept that the PKPA should apply.
A civil case ends up being the only way to try and get what I never had the chance to have, and will never get back: a part in my daughter’s life. The damages are a result of my missing so much of my daughter’s life and her missing out on my care and the life we could have had together. In fact, one Utah Supreme Court justice made a strong comment in the end of her concurring opinion about the damage to the child’s ability to build a relationship with her father. She said they haven’t just hurt the father, but have hurt the child too.
Legally, I don’t know the exact reason we couldn’t go after them criminally. Generally, my sense was that it just wouldn’t work. Now we are interested in passing legislation in Colorado where someone like me would have the ability to press criminal charges against mothers who fraudulently lie on birth certificates or leave the state to give birth in order to avoid a father’s paternity declaration. But this is a new area of the law and still in its infancy.
LI: Where do things stand now for you and your daughter?
RM: She is still living in Utah with the adoptive parents with whom I now have joint custody. With the visitation decision I now have a lot more ability for visitation—even more time than I can afford with time and travel between states. She gets some time to live with me in Colorado and I can see her in Utah a couple times a month. I certainly get something that I didn’t have before, but it’s not right that the court essentially granted “custody by estoppel” and awarded something to someone else because of their fraud.
LI: If you had two minutes to speak to the entire Utah legislature what message would you share?
Then for that child, now adult, to know that they have been stolen, or lost their identity, because of a law that allows mothers to cheat, lie, and commit fraud to keep away a father who wants to be a part of that child’s life is a scary proposition for that child.
RM: Remember that there is a child in every single one of these cases and that all of these fathers are half of who these children are. If we are truly putting our children first, we need to recognize that there is often a father who has tried to become a part of this child’s life; someday this child is going to be an adult and will always wonder who their father is and what their father did. It is scary to think that there will be children who, after reaching adulthood, find out they had a father who did everything he thought he could and should have done to be a part of that child’s life. Then for that child, now adult, to know that they have been stolen, or lost their identity, because of a law that allows mothers to cheat, lie, and commit fraud to keep away a father who wants to be a part of that child’s life is a scary proposition for that child. The opportunity to fix this problem and change the law is now. Let’s make it right for these children because they are going to be adults someday.