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The Battle for Vanessa: A Mom's Custody Crusade

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Gina Kaysen Fernandes: A 2-year-old girl at the center of a contentious custody battle involving the states of California and Ohio will stay with the only mother she has ever known, at least for now. A California appeals court has granted Stacey Doss temporary custody of the toddler, Vanessa, whom she has been raising in Orange County, Calif., and trying to adopt since birth. It's a significant victory for the single parent, who is facing a difficult and lengthy court fight.

For the past two years, Stacey has suffered in silence, keeping the details of her child's bungled adoption a private matter. Complex issues concerning parental rights and adoption laws have put her daughter in a legal tug-of-war involving an army of attorneys and judges. Stacey now finds herself in the public spotlight, fighting to keep custody of Vanessa while waging her own personal crusade to reform what she believes is a broken system. "Vanessa is just the tip of the iceberg," says Stacey, who has received letters and e-mails from hundreds of adoptive parents who've suffered similar circumstances. Stacey believes Vanessa's case can bring change. "Something is really wrong here," she says. "I'm going to stick my neck out and do something."

Stacey recently shared her harrowing story with momlogic, explaining that an Ohio woman had given Stacey permission to adopt her newborn daughter, saying that the birthfather was unknown. As Stacey and the California adoption agency began processing the paperwork, the baby's biological father, Benjamin Mills, Jr. of Dayton, Ohio, came forward to assert his parental rights. Stacey soon learned why the birthmother, Andrea Conley, lied to everyone about Mills: Conley wanted to protect Vanessa from her father.

Media sources report that Conley and Mills have had a long and rocky relationship that includes two other daughters. Those girls currently live with Mills' mother, who is considered a foster parent. Mills spent time behind bars after a third-degree felony conviction for domestic violence and child endangerment. In January 2005, police reportedly arrested Mills for beating, strangling and dragging Conley by the hair while she held their child in her arms.

It remains unclear why Mills (who does not have custody of any of his other four children) would fight tooth and nail for custody of Vanessa. Victims' advocates argue that this is an obvious issue of control. "This isn't a case of a father who's dying to have a relationship with his child," says Robin Sax, a momlogic legal analyst and former prosecutor. "This is a man who's willing to go to any lengths to make the birthmother miserable." The courts gave Mills an opportunity to visit Vanessa in California last week, but he canceled the trip at the last minute. "You can tell a lot more from someone's actions than from their lawyer's words," says Sax.

Andrea Conley publicly said that she was horrified when Mills decided he wanted custody of Vanessa. She told a crowd at a July 15 candlelight vigil in Dayton that she hoped Stacey would get custody of Vanessa. "The only one that matters in this whole decision is Vanessa, and people need to start keeping her best interests at heart instead of fighting between Stacey and Benjamin," Conley said. Coming forward and speaking out about the adoption has put Conley's future in jeopardy: She's not only risking potential criminal exposure for perjury, but Mills has reportedly tried to go after her. Conley has asked for police protection and has obtained a restraining order against Mills.

Mills' legal team acknowledges that this is an emotionally charged case on both sides, and insists that their client wants to spend more time with his daughter. "Mr. Mills has consistently acted to protect the parent-child relationship between him and his daughter," says Elizabeth Gorman, the pro bono attorney representing Mills. In a statement to momlogic, Gorman said her client still has legal rights to Vanessa. "Our client was found to be the biological father by genetic testing and established paternity of his daughter in Ohio," she says.

Ohio law requires a birthfather to register with the state's "Putative Father Registry" within 11 months of the child's birth. According to Gorman, Mills signed the registry one month after Vanessa's birth and filed his complaint for custody before Stacey Doss was granted permission to leave the state of Ohio with the baby. The adoption was never finalized.

Stacey is a self-employed single parent, paying out-of-pocket for all her court expenses. However, taxpayers in both states are footing the bill for Mills' legal costs. According to the Dayton Daily News, Children Services in Montgomery County, Ohio, has paid nearly $4,000 for Mills to visit Vanessa. The trip he recently canceled cost the agency $1,300. "In these difficult economic times, it's not uncommon for parental visits to take place out of town," states Ann Stevens, a spokesperson for Montgomery County Children Services. In an interview with the newspaper, Stevens added, "People need to keep in mind that Mr. Mills is still legally this child's father."

The next step is a court hearing (which will take place today in Ohio) to decide whether Mills acted like a "presumed father" during Conley's pregnancy. If Mills did not provide financial or emotional care during the pregnancy, he'll have to make a convincing argument to explain why. Mills' attorney also has until August 2nd to appeal the California court's ruling that leaves Vanessa in Stacey's care for the time being.

While Stacey may have won round one, legal observers say the odds are slim that the custody dispute will end in her favor. "Blood relatives are considered more important than anything," says Deborah Luxenberg, a family law attorney in Washington, D.C., who has extensive experience in adoption and custody issues. In her 35 years of practice, she has seen many troubling custody cases wherein parental rights trumped what was in the best interest of the child. "To me, that's just callous, cruel and totally not focused on children," says Luxenberg. The courts are generally more concerned with keeping families together, and the fact that Vanessa has two full-blood siblings means "[Stacey] could be screwed," says Luxenberg.

Not only are two parents fighting over Vanessa, but so are the courts. If California and Ohio can't reach an agreement over who has jurisdiction, the case could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. On the surface, it appears to be a child-custody battle, but the real fight is about which state system has control over Vanessa. "What's unique about this case is, [Mills] has lost custody of all his children," notes Sax. "Now Stacey has to fight him to fight the system."

Since coming forward with her story, Stacey has received extensive media coverage and community support. Family members have raised cash by holding up signs on street corners that read: "Please Don't Take My Cousin," and an Orange County couple anonymously donated a large check to Stacey's legal fund. "The generosity is profound," says Stacey, who is pledging to continue the fight even if she prevails in court. Stacey plans to turn "Operation Vanessa" into a nonprofit organization. "Maybe this will be the one time when the child will be considered," she says.

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188 comments so far | Post a comment now
katie July 29, 2010, 8:20 AM

This is ridiculous! Allow this woman to adopt and love this little girl. That Mills guy is an animal who (if gained custody) will only give the child to his mother to raise with his other two kids. I bet she is not fighting for him to gain custody either. Let’s just hope justice is done for Stacy and Vanessa!

XXXX July 29, 2010, 8:28 AM

Mills was just the sperm donor.

Kristen July 29, 2010, 8:59 AM

This is SICK, this man has proven 4 other times that he is not fit to parent any child, so why on earth is the court spending money to send him to see and get to know this child. If I were the judge my answer would be start a relationship with the children you have already lost custody of and then maybe I might consider allowing you to have some contact with this child but NEVER custody. This man needs to go away, he is looking for his 15 minutes.

MR July 29, 2010, 11:18 AM

The birth mother, the adoption agency, and the adoptive mother have conspired to illegally remove this child from the state and away from her birth father to get the “bonding” clock ticking as fast as possible. This father, from day 1, has asserted his desire to parent his daughter and met every legal requirement to assert his parental rights.

The birth mother should be brought up on charges for lying to the adoption agency. These folks are kidnappers, plain and simple. Their actions are indefensible.

Kathy July 29, 2010, 11:40 AM

I don’t understand the why a court would rule in the best interest of a biological parent instead of the child. Just because you have carried a baby or contributed the sperm that it takes to make that baby-does not make you a mom or dad! Relationship, love, taking care of, consoling the cries, supplying their needs-that is what makes a mom or dad. My daughter is adopting a little girl that is 4 years old who has been in her care since she was 5 weeks old, with no contact or support from bio mom and dad, and now the new Ohio Supreme Court ruling is making her get a consent from them. And would even consider taking my granddaughter out of her home if a bio grandparent, or aunt or other bio relative would step up now and want her. Are you serious? What ridiculous laws are these?

unknown mom July 29, 2010, 12:05 PM

This reminds me of Baby Jessica. She was taken from her adoptive parents at age 2. I think it is heartbreaking. I was adopted at 3 months old and I have recently met my biological mother. I am grateful she never tried to get me back. I love her for doing what she thought was best for me but I know she would not have been the kind of mother I needed. I think these people need to consider the child and what taking her from the only mother she has ever known is going to do to her. They should work out a compromise and if the father truly wants to get to know his daughter they should work out some kind of visitation or something. Sounds to me like he is just trying to get back at the bio mother. The bio mother did what she felt was best for her daughter. I pray that they consider this poor child’s best interest.

joec July 29, 2010, 12:31 PM

Stacey Doss knew full well that Mills was asserting his parental rights before she ever left Ohio with the child two years ago. She should have stayed and litigated the father’s fitness to parent then. If he’s not a fit parent, he’ll lose his rights, but that’s for a court to decide using due process of law. Stacey Doss and the birth mother thought they could decide the father’s rights for themselves; now they’re learing that they can’t.

Christina July 29, 2010, 8:43 PM

Sorry, but Mills is full of s**t. He has other children, none of whom he parents. This is a control issue, pure and simple. I am a parent of twins through an open adoption. The birth father, at the last minute, decided he didn’t want the adoption to happen. This is a man who already had a 5 year old daughter that he does not support. After we spoke, he decided to waive his parental rights, and we promised to keep in touch. We kept our end of the bargain and have always made sure he had our contact information. The boys are now 3 years old and we have never heard from him. Mills is doing this only because it makes the birth mother (and adoptive mother) miserable, and doesn’t cost him a dime. If he was responsible for his own legal expenses, I guarantee that he would disappear.

Carol July 29, 2010, 11:20 PM

Ok, so if Mills does get custody and turns around and gives his daughter to his mother to raise - how is that bad? She’ll be raised with HER TWO FULL BIOLOGICAL SISTERS and her biologic grandmother. She will be with her family.
It’s an interesting fact that Andrea Conley isn’t even raising her other two daughters. How messed up she as a mother? Seriously, if Ms Conley thinks Mr Mills’ mother is fit to raise her other two daughters, why not Vanessa? Why not keep the sisters together?

Jenny July 31, 2010, 8:58 AM

Ok now….why is everyone making this so complicated??? The quickest way to get this loser sperm donor would be to threaten him with paying CHILD SUPPORT. Losers like him would rather be incarcerated than have to pay any kind of child support! Why do you think so many of them are locked up??? The birth mother needs to make it clear that if the adoptive mother loses custody then Vanessa WILL NOT be going to his mother like the other children!! You see, mama is taking care of this mans kids so why would he care if he gets custody or not?? He knows he won’t really be responsible for her care. It will only be on paper. But if he knew he would be financially responsible for her he would make the disappearing act like so many others do!!!!

Andrea August 3, 2010, 8:10 AM

It’s an unfortunate situation, but legally Doss is not in a good position. The consent of BOTH parents is required for a legal adoption and the father of this little girl didn’t consent, was not given a chance to be a father, and is entitled to have her back. It doesn’t really matter that Doss can offer her more or that staying with the adoptive mother might be a better situation for her. Biological parents have a right to raise their own children unless and until they are proven unfit. Doss should have returned her as soon as she found out about the lie. Instead, she’s drawing out the situation and making it harder for the girl.

Andrea August 3, 2010, 8:13 AM

In the Baby Jessica adoption case, the girl adjusted after being returned to her biological parents. At age 12 she had no memory of her adoptive parents and was happy she had been returned to her biological mother. Kids adapt when they are returned to bio parents.

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