Five words in Ohio law may force a Tennessee couple to give back a Butler County boy they legally adopted as a newborn two years ago to the boy's presumed biological father.
That outcome is the result of an Ohio Supreme Court ruling last week that found a presumed father of a child born out of wedlock is not required to support the birth mother in order to maintain his right to contest her decision to put the child up for adoption.
In making that ruling, Ohio's highest court vacated a 2015 Butler County adoption of a newborn boy, which was arranged and agreed upon by the baby's mother who was then a Miami University engineering student, even though the presumed father, a former Redhawks linebacker, contested the adoption.
At issue in the case was the interpretation of the phrases: "willfully abandon" and "care and support," as it relates to the pregnant mother in such cases.
It's unclear who currently has custody of the now 20-month-old, referred to as P.L.H. in court documents. And the court did not prescribe who should have custody of the toddler.
But the lawyer for the toddler's presumed father said he has filed for sole custody.
"This is a victory,'' said Michaela Stagnaro, of the Cincinnati-based Farrish Law Firm. "My client wanted custody of his son and this allows him to have that."
Repeated calls to lawyers representing the biological mother and the adoptive parents were not returned.
One-time sexual encounter leads to pregnancy and legal case
The case dates to February 2015 when Sarah Chapman, who was working as a mechanical engineering intern at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park in Florida, was invited and traveled to Louisiana to celebrate Mardi Gras with her former classmate and Miami engineering graduate Christopher Wade over Valentine's Day weekend.
Wade is a Louisiana native who was living with his grandmother and mother at the time. He has since moved to Detroit, according to records.
Chapman, now 24, became pregnant on that trip and within weeks notified Wade, now 26, of her plan for adoption. The two communicated sporadically via text message and did not see each other again.
It wasn't until Chapman sent adoption consent forms to Wade in September for him to sign that he objected. According to court records, he said he would not sign them without talking to his mother. His lawyer then sent a letter saying he would seek sole custody and enclosed a copy of Wade's Putative Father Registry form.
A putative father is one who is presumed to be the father but has not established paternity to a child. Most states, including Ohio, have a putative father registry, which allows a man to register if he believes he may have fathered a child and wants to be notified if the child is placed for adoption.
Wade, who was making $70,000 at the time, said he would help her with medical costs, according to the court records. But he never did. He did, however, send $100 check after the child was born, according to court records.
The boy was born Nov. 3, 2015. Three days later, Butler County Probate Court approved Chapman's petition for adoption and the baby was legally adopted by the couple, who is not named in the records.
A fellow with the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA), which joined in the case on the side of the adoptive parents, said she believes lawyers representing Chapman and the adoptive parents are reviewing their legal options to maintain the adoption.
Those options could include: The adoptive parents filing a motion for reconsideration or Chapman filing a federal civil rights claim made under the due process clause of Fourteenth Amendment, she said.
"This could continue with the child in limbo,'' Susan Garner Eisenman, of the AAAA, noted.
Did he "willfully abandon" her?
According to court records, Wade said he was never notified of the birth and only discovered it when he saw a picture of Chapman on Facebook. He then filed to establish paternity and to gain temporary custody of the child.
During a hearing, the Butler County Probate Court found that under Ohio adoption law, Wade "willfully abandoned" Chapman, when he failed to provide financial support or care of Chapman during her pregnancy. By doing so, the court found, Wade forfeited his right to contest the adoption.
Wade appealed. But he lost.
That ruling was upheld in a split decision by the Twelfth District Court of Appeals. The majority decision found that Wade's attempts to help were directed at the child and not toward Chapman and was "a far cry from actually tendering that financial and emotional support."
Justice: A 'head scratcher'
But the dissenting opinion of one judge in the ruling opened the door for Stagnaro to petition the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case this year, she said this week.
To Stagnaro's surprise, the Supreme Court accepted the case. She argued that Ohio law does not require a putative father to specifically provide for the care and support of a mother during pregnancy as it does for a child.
The Supreme Court agreed, saying its job is to follow the letter of the law. However, the court suggested it's a policy question for the state legislature.
Justice Pat DeWine concurred in judgment only and wrote a separate opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.
DeWine called the majority's interpretation a "head scratcher:"
"What the majority apparently means is that while the father's failure to provide financial support can't be held against him, it can be used as a factor in his favor,'' DeWine wrote. "But this makes little sense."
Near the end of its opinion, the court noted its real-world implications of its ruling. "All parties have the child's best interest at heart and that our decision is the end result of a process in which we must choose between two imperfect and unsatisfying options.
"This appeal charges us with the unenviable task of reaching a result that overrides the adoption plan of a diligent birth mother and separates P.L.H. from the only home he has ever known or that terminates permanently (Wade's) fundamental right to reside and nurture his child."
Both Stagnaro and Garner Eisenman agreed that they doubt the case will have far-reaching implications for parental rights in future adoption cases.
Garner Eisenman noted that all Wade would have had to do to stop the adoption was to file a parentage action in court at or before he registered as a putative father.
"I'm hoping the legislature will deal with this and it will not have a large impact going forward," she said.