U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Carlton is passionate about two areas of service in his life: his country and his family.
But when the soldier shipped out for a tour of duty in the Middle East in early 2010, he had no idea his toughest — and most traumatic — battle would play out after he returned from the war.
For the past six years, the 33-year-old veteran from Williamsport, Pennsylvania has been fighting what feels like a losing battle for a father’s rights to his biological child, who was given up for adoption without his knowledge or consent.
Today, because of adoption policies that often value the rights of birth mothers above those of unwed fathers, Carlton is left financially and emotionally exhausted, and no closer to learning any details about his daughter, let alone being a part of her life.
“It’s just devastating,” Carlton said of the legal ordeal. “I’m extremely stressed, I’ve probably aged myself eight to 10 years over this.”
For the war vet surviving on disability benefits, the salt in the wound is the fact that it began with a painful lie: his former girlfriend told him the baby had died while she secretly arranged for the infant to be adopted in Utah. Carlton and his girlfriend were living together in Williamsport when she told him she was expecting his baby in September 2009.
He said he intended to raise the child with her.
The couple split up a few months later, but Carlton said he continued to support her with cash gifts and other help, such as shoveling snow for her.
“Eight months into her pregnancy, she just up and disappeared,” Carlton said. “I was calling her like crazy. I thought she was missing.”
She showed up at his door just six weeks later with news that sickened him: the baby had died. A full year passed before Carlton discovered, during a court hearing, that his child was alive and living with adoptive parents, following legal proceedings in Utah.
A ruling in the Utah Supreme Court case of Carlton v. Brown, filed in 2014, confirmed that Carlton’s then-girlfriend, unbeknownst to him, traveled to Utah and gave birth. She initially told him the baby was a boy.
She later admitted in a hearing, according to court records, that the baby boy was, in fact, a live girl, whom she had given up for adoption.
But despite the evidence that he was misled, a judge denied his petition contesting the adoption.
Utah’s adoption policy is that a child is better off with an unfamiliar married couple than with a single biological parent. And a “fraud immunity” statute in state adoption law means that if someone is found guilty of lying during an adoption, it still cannot be overturned.
State adoption authorities say they have no position on this provision, other than to obey the law.
In Utah, mothers unilaterally can offer babies for adoption if their fathers fail to meet a series of criteria within 20 days of an adoption notice.
The Utah Supreme Court ruling confirms Carlton’s statement that he was not approached for his consent to the adoption because he failed to take a little-known legal step: signing a father’s registry that ensures his right to be notified of any legal proceedings involving the child.
Carlton is far from alone: many unwed fathers across America fight for their rights in states where policies are skewed against them.
Carlton was one of a group of 12 fathers who launched a 2014 class action federal lawsuit demanding $130 million in damages and challenging the constitutionality of Utah’s adoption statute. All the plaintiffs, like Carlton, had said under oath that they had seen babies, whom they wanted to help raise, offered for adoption without their permission.
The suit was dismissed last fall, but the fathers’ individual battles continue.
Rob Manzares, a contractor with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, also has spent six years — and some $330,000 in legal costs — fighting for custody of a daughter who secretly was offered for adoption.
“I’m not going to give up,” Manzares said. “If I have to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, I will.”
Manzares, however, has seen some success.
After taking his fight to the Utah Supreme Court, he was awarded visitation rights to his child.
Carlton, on the other hand, knows virtually nothing about his daughter — where she is, with whom, how she looks, or even what her name is.