UPDATE 1:00 PM: Statement from Stacey Doss regarding the California versus Ohio battle for Vanessa Doss Adoption Custody Lawsuit: "The California court has passed the buck and given
entire case to Ohio. The Ohio judge has decided that they will put
Vanessa into foster care. The birth father will have night visits with
Vanessa. Vanessa will likely be placed with the birth father's
mother. The California court is vacating its order to keep Vanessa with
me as of July 16, 2010. The court chose July 16th to give us time to
with the Court of Appeals in California. I only have until July 16th to
save my daughter."
Gina Kaysen Fernandes: A Southern California mother is embarking on a heartwrenching legal battle today to maintain custody of a 2-year-old girl she has raised since birth. The fate of little Vanessa rests in the hands of attorneys and family court judges in two states.
After ten years of infertility treatments, adoption attempts and a failed marriage, Stacey Doss finally achieved motherhood. "It was surreal," says Stacey, describing the day she got the call from an Ohio woman who had chosen her to become the adoptive parent of a newborn girl. Hours after the June 13th, 2008, delivery, Stacey cradled Vanessa in her arms at the hospital. "It was amazing," she recalls. "I looked at her and thought, 'Oh my gosh, she's mine!'" But that baby bliss quickly turned into devastation when Stacey learned that she had been deceived.
The birth mom had told Stacey and the California adoption agency that she had conceived Vanessa during a one-night stand with a guy she didn't know. She signed a penalty of perjury document, and the agency filed legal paperwork that allowed Stacey to take Vanessa home to Southern California. Everything was falling into place -- until the baby's birth father stepped forward to claim custody. Turns out, the birth mom lied to everyone, including the man (who had actually fathered two of her other children). "He thinks his child was stolen," says Stacey. DNA tests have confirmed that Benjamin Mills, Jr. is indeed Vanessa's father.
Stacey immediately hired attorneys to finalize the adoption process. "I was devastated ... I was a nervous wreck," she says. She also hired a private investigator, who uncovered disturbing details about the father's criminal history. Media reports confirm that Mills' rap sheet includes domestic-violence, child-endangerment and drug-possession charges, and that he has served three stints in prison. "I saw a monster," says Stacey. Mills has four other children, but he doesn't live with any of them.
Stacey tried to give Mills the benefit of the doubt, hoping they could reach an agreement if they met in person. In June 2009, she paid to fly Mills out to California to meet Vanessa -- and soon realized that compromise wouldn't work. "Vanessa was scared of him," says Stacey, who felt at the time that Mills was more interested in visiting tourist sights than in spending time with Vanessa.
The issue of who should have custody of the toddler is now up to the courts in California and Ohio to decide. "Mr. Mills recognizes how emotional this case has become," says Elizabeth Gorman, an attorney from Legal Aid of Western Ohio who represents Mills and spoke to KNBC. "We are all in a bad spot." The pro-bono agency declined to discuss details of the case with momlogic, but in a statement wrote, "We have faith that the court process will lead to results that are best for the child."
Stacey is not optimistic about today's hearing. "We are mortified," she says. "We don't know how much worse it can get." According to Ohio adoption attorney Jerry Johnson, the case doesn't look good for Stacey. "[Mills'] criminal record has no bearing whatsoever," says Johnson, who is not involved in this case but says the scenario is not uncommon. "If the courts find that the birth father's consent is necessary, the adoption can't go through."
Laws about birth parents' rights vary from state to state, but in Ohio, the burden is on the biological father to register with the state. A birth father has up to 10 months (beginning a month after his child's birth) to sign the "Putative Father Registry," which protects his parental rights in case the birth mother doesn't identify (or intentionally misidentifies) the birth father. If Mills signed this Registry, his parental rights are still intact. That doesn't necessarily guarantee he'll gain custody, but it means Stacey faces an emotionally difficult and financially draining road to justice. She has hired seven attorneys to fight this case, preparing for the worst. "I'm in big trouble," she says. "It doesn't look like California is going to stand up for this baby."
But why would Mills want custody of Vanessa, considering he has already relinquished custody of his four other children? "That's what's so egregious about this case," says Robin Sax, a momlogic legal analyst and former prosecutor. "While he may be asserting his parental rights, is he really acting in the child's best interest? Or is he taking advantage of the situation where the judge's hands are tied?"
Stacey's biggest fear right now is that Vanessa will end up in Ohio's foster care system while the court drama unfolds. Because the adoption is still pending, Vanessa is legally in the custody of Ohio Social Services; under a judge's order, the agency could take the toddler away from Stacey. "That's a highly unlikely scenario," says Johnson, adding that, unless it's found that Vanessa is in imminent danger, "I cannot see any judge doing that."
Stacey does her best to shield Vanessa from the ongoing stress. "She's the most energetic, funniest child who loves to laugh," says Stacey. And despite this ordeal, Stacey hopes her experience won't deter other hopeful parents from entering the adoption process. "It's the best thing I've ever done," she says.