The Plight of Baby Emma


The Washington Post's Jerry Markon reports on the sad, infuriating case of "Baby Emma," a little girl born in Woodbridge, Virginia last year. Emma's mother, 20-year-old Emily Colleen Fahland, didn't want the child, and gave her up to a Utah adoption agency. The child was adopted by Utah couple Thomas and Chandra Zarembinski, who have raised her for the last 14 months.

The problem is that Emma's father, 20-year-old John Wyatt, wanted to raise the child. Even Fahland concedes he has never wavered from that. The article mentions no allegation that Wyatt is abusive or ill-fit to be a parent. Yet when she went into labor Fahland cut off contact with Wyatt. The hospital where Emma was born refused to even tell Wyatt whether Fahland had been admitted. The next day, Fahland and the child moved to a motel, where she handed Emma off to the adoption agency.

After learning of Emma's birth (from his lawyer), Wyatt filed custody papers within the time allotted to him by Virginia law. He also filed five days before the Zermbinskis filed adoption papers. That didn't matter. A Utah court, citing that state's adoption laws that favor married couples over single parents, simply ignored a Virginia court's ruling that Wyatt be given custody of his child. Now the Zarembinskis' lawyer argues—apparently with a straight face—that it's in Emma's best interest to stay with the couple, because they "are the only parents this child has ever known."

It isn't clear from the article if the Zarembinskis definitely knew before they adopted Emma that the child's father was claiming custody. But they certainly knew shortly after, and they continued to fight to keep her from her biological parent anyway. It's hard to feel any pity for them. A kidnapper could make the same argument their attorney is making, provided he was able to elude authorities for a sufficiently long period of time.

Speaking of which, I'm trying to figure out how Fahland—and possibly the Utah adoption agency—aren't guilty of kidnapping. I'll concede that I know very little about family law, and perhaps the law is as perverse here as it can be in other areas. But Wyatt is the child's father. Once Fahland gave up her custody rights, one would think that full custody rights reverted to Wyatt. From the article, Fahland and the adoption agency appear to have conspired to make the handoff before Wyatt was even aware his child had been born, and before he could prevent the adoption from happening. If the roles had been reversed, and Wyatt had swiped the kid out of the nursery and rushed her off to an out-of-state adoption agency to, say, prevent himself from having to pay child support, is there any doubt he'd be charged with kidnapping?

Strangely, New York Times "Motherlode" blogger Lisa Balkin presents this case as if it's ethically complicated, even implying that the child should remain with the Zarembinskis.

Who do you think should have custody of "Baby Emma"? The stable married couple who are, as their lawyer says, "the only parents this child has ever known," or the single 21-year-old nightclub worker who has never seen her, though he certainly has tried?

I guess I'm not seeing the moral complexity, here. And I'm not sure what Wyatt's job or marital status have to do with his parental rights. The child should be returned to her father. Fahland and the adoption agency should pay Wyatt's legal bills. And in a just world, Fahland would be paying Wyatt child support for the next 18 years.

A Utah Court of Appeals will hear the case at the end of next month.