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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2001

Teary dad can't see his baby son yet

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH AND DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

The 21-year-old father, who is suing his former girlfriend for custody of their son, sobbed in Lucas County Juvenile Court as lawyers haggled over how often he would be able to visit the infant born five months ago.

Despite Mr. Woodbury's frustration, he will be able to see his son soon. “The father is entitled to visitation. There's no question,” said Magistrate Denny Parish, who will decide today when that will take place.

The hearing signaled the first round of a legal battle caused by a state error that has become a custody nightmare.

In a unique court case, Mr. Woodbury, of Toledo, is suing 23-year-old Theresa Rangel, of Oregon, for custody of their son, who was put up for adoption just hours after he was born.

The young father, who had little contact with the mother at the end of her pregnancy, said he was never told about the birth of their son.

Until last week the baby was being cared for by a Sandusky County couple, who thought they had done everything right to adopt the child.

But they soon learned that the state failed to perform a vital service: to inform them that Mr. Woodbury's name was on a registry that protects the rights of biological fathers in adoption proceedings.

The error was discovered several months after Ms. Rangel put the baby up for adoption in October. A computer check should have shown Mr. Woodbury had placed his name on the Ohio Putative Father Registry the month before his son's birth.

But because the state Department of Job and Family Services, which manages the list, didn't catch its mistake, the couple thought they could realize their longtime dream of being parents.

The state agency has admitted the miscue and is checking the list by hand until a computer problem is fixed.

After the error was found, the adoptive parents had to give the baby back to Ms. Rangel, setting up yesterday's emotional court hearing.

It began with Ms. Rangel's attorney, John Intagliata, conceding for the first time that DNA tests proved that Mr. Woodbury is the baby's father.

The hearing then turned into a debate over whether the first-time father has enough experience to care for the baby without supervision.

Mr. Intagliata, whose client wasn't in the courtroom, argued that Mr. Woodbury initially should see the baby only in the presence of Ms. Rangel's 33-year-old sister.

“There was a period of adjustment for this child because of being in the home of the adoptive parents for nearly five months,” Mr. Intagliata said.

Douglas Jordan, Mr. Woodbury's attorney, countered by saying that until last week Ms. Rangel hadn't seen the child since birth and had never cared full-time for a baby.

He said the young father lives at home with his parents, who would help him tend to the child, and deserves liberal visitation.

“Because of the child being of infant years, there should be an equal time for the father and the mother to bond with this child,” Mr. Jordan said.

Magistrate Parish said he will decide by this afternoon just how frequently Mr. Woodbury will be able to care for his son in his own home.

Even before the hearing started, tears started to flow when Mr. Woodbury learned that he would not be able to see his son yesterday.

His mother, Norma, wearing a matching shirt and sweater embroidered with the words “Grandma Rules,” hugged her son as they both began to cry.

“I came in here with my hopes too high,” Mr. Woodbury said.

Mr. Jordan said this case is rare because most unmarried fathers don't wage court battles to gain custody of their children. “It's very unusual for a young man to accept the responsibility that he has,” the lawyer said. “Normally they're running the other way.”

The young couple dated for about six months, breaking up during Ms. Rangel's pregnancy last year.

After giving birth in early October, Ms. Rangel, who works in a Perrysburg day care, immediately turned the baby over to the adoptive parents and hadn't seen him until last week.

She took her baby back shortly after Mr. Woodbury filed a motion to gain custody from the adoptive parents.

After yesterday's hearing, Ms. Rangel's attorney said his client only gave the baby up for adoption because she wanted him to be raised by a married couple.

Mr. Intagliata said the father's decision not to go along with the adoption means the baby will be raised in a home “where the child is going to have a father, a mother, a stepfather or a stepmother, or a boyfriend or a girlfriend or somebody else.”

After a tear-filled meeting last month in which the young couple failed to convince Mr. Woodbury to allow them to keep the baby, the young couple returned the child to his mother, as required by state law.

The couple, both in their early 30s, have been trying to have a baby of their own for the 13 years they've been married. Finally they decided to try to adopt.

“This was the first attempt,” the 33-year-old woman said.

For the first few months, the couple thought everything was fine. They brought the baby home where they had converted a room into a nursery. They named the little boy Tyler Douglas and went through the usual sleepless nights and fussy feedings for the past five months.

After six months, the adoption would have become final. But in late December they got the news the state made a mistake and the father wanted his baby.

“The child probably never would have been placed with us if the state hadn't made this mistake,” she said. “It's unfortunate because we did everything right.”

She said she has mixed feelings about the baby's biological parents but can only hope they'll love him as much as she and her husband do.

“I just have to trust in God that she's going to be a good mother to Tyler and that David will be a good father to Tyler,” she said.



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