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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.


next: More Black Kids Drown. Are Parents At Fault?
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