Saturday, September 16, 2000

Ky. court: Justin stays with adoptive parents

Biological parents say they'll appeal

By Spencer Hunt and Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Justin, the 3-year-old who has spent most of his life at the center of a Kentucky-Ohio custody battle, can stay with the couple trying to adopt him, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

        The court's 2-1 ruling is one of the most significant hurdles overcome by Rich and Cheryl Asente, of Girard, Ohio, whose struggles to adopt have attracted national attention and inspired many Tristate residents to hold vigils and write letters of support.

[photo] Richard and Cheryl Asente adopted son Joey (right), now 4, but have been embroiled in an interstate custody battle over Joey's brother, Justin, now 3.
(Enquirer photo)
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        Supporters have said the courts should pay more attention to the “best interest” of Justin, a red-haired, hazel-eyed tot, than to the rights of his biological parents, Regina Moore and Jerry Dorning, an unmarried couple in Burlington.

        Speaking from her Girard home, Cheryl Asente said the family was happy and relieved with the ruling.

        “We haven't had news this good in a long time,” she said. “This is the most hopeful we've felt in a long time.”

        But, she said, “I know we're not done. I know we've got a long way to go.”

        The ruling overturns a lower-court order that Justin be returned to his birth parents. He has been living with the Asentes since he was 11 months old.

        Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning could not be reached Friday, but their attorneys confirmed they were surprised and devastated.

        “They're exhausted, but they're not ready to give up yet,” said Stephanie Dietz, Mr. Dorning's attorney.

        The biological parents' attorneys said they will file an appeal with the Kentucky Supreme Court, but it rarely reverses appellate court decisions. Meanwhile, Mr. Dorning and Ms. Moore will continue the five-hour drive every third weekend for visits with Justin.

        Ms. Moore did not learn of the ruling until she arrived at the Asente house Friday afternoon to pick up Justin for their visit. She declined comment.

        “Over the last year, they've really built up a relationship with Justin,” said Richard Cullison, of Northern Kentucky Legal Aid, which also represents Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning.

        Even before Justin was born in February 1997, his biological mother had asked the Asentes whether they wished to adopt him. The Asentes already had adopted Justin's brother, Joey, who is now 4. Ms. Moore has said that health and financial problems influenced her offer.

        But after Justin's birth, she and Mr. Dorning changed their minds and Justin remained with them. When Justin was 11 months old, the couple placed him with the Asentes and signed consent-to-a dopt forms in February 1998.

        Though the forms state they become irrevocable after 20 days, Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning said they signed them only after an attorney assured them they would have until a special March 1998 hearing to change their minds.

        They changed their minds, but the hearing never happened. Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning sued the Asentes for custody and later sued the attorney handling the adoption.

        In February 1999, Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe ruled Justin should be returned to Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning because they had made a misinformed decision. She ordered regular visits between Justin and his biological parents.

        The Asentes appealed and an Ohio judge agreed. Months later, Ohio's appellate and Supreme courts reversed that judge, saying the case belongs in Kentucky courts, where the question of parental consent remained.

        In the appellate court's opinion released Friday, judges David C. Buckingham of Murray, Ky., and William L. Knopf of Louisville said Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning were well aware they could lose custody of Justin when they signed the forms.

        But dissenting Judge Wilfrid A. Schroder of Covington supported Judge Summe's decision. He found that the adoption attorney handling the consents misled Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning.

        “If you can't trust your own attorney, whom can you trust? The state?” he asked.

        He also accused the other judges of caving in to public opinion by considering their perceptions of Justin's best interest instead of focusing on the termination of parental rights.

        “Let me point out that if we start erroneously considering "best interest of the child' in terminating parental rights, any parent could potentially lose their child,” he said.

        “Daddy Warbucks would be able to have any child he wanted, without the parents' consent and without first showing the parents are unfit.”

        The Asentes say the custody fight has cost them more than $350,000 in legal fees and court costs so far.

        Mrs. Asente said she and her husband have grown accustomed to being short on money.

        “After a while, money doesn't matter,” Mrs. Asente said. “Little things that other people might care about, it just doesn't matter anymore.”

        Despite Friday's victory, Mrs. Asente was realistic.

        “Even with the best-case scenario, if everyone rules in our favor, it could still take two or three years,” she said. “You just don't know how it's going to go.

        Describing her life as an emotional rollercoaster, Mrs. Asente said she has learned to live life day to day and moment to moment.

        “You just try to enjoy every minute just for itself. When you are all together and all happy, you really intensify on it because you don't know how long it will last.”

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