Army veteran Chris Carlton says even though he still does not know the whereabouts of his 4-year-old daughter, Tuesday was a good day.
"I'm very ecstatic," he told Fox News. "This is the happiest I've been in four years. It feels like it is justice slowly being served."
In an opinion handed down Tuesday by the Supreme Court of the State of Utah, the justices reversed part of a lower court's decision, giving Carlton more legal options in pursuing custody of his biological daughter who was put up for adoption without his knowledge.
In 2010 Carlton's pregnant girlfriend, Shalanda Brown, left Pennsylvania where they both lived, to secretly give birth to their child in Utah. According to court documents, she returned home, no longer pregnant, telling Carlton their baby was a boy and had died. Devastated, Carlton sued to find his son's burial site.
In court, Brown broke down and admitted their child was not only a girl, but very much alive. She had relinquished her parental rights and given the child up for adoption through the Adoption Center of Choice (ACC) in American Fork, Utah. She told ACC the father was abusive and refused to name him, so he didn't get notice. Carlton denies ever abusing Brown.
He has spent the last four years in court trying to get back the child, still trying to stop the adoption.
Carlton is currently a plaintiff in two separate lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Utah's Adoption Act. Specifically, at issue is the lack of protection it gives to unwed birth fathers who live both in and out of the state.
Most of the controversial provisions were passed in 1998 and signed by then Governor Mike Leavitt, including one granting mothers fraud immunity. The statute reads in part, "A fraudulent representation ... is not a basis for dismissal of a petition for adoption, vacation of an adoption decree, or an automatic grant of custody to the offended party. Custody determinations shall be based on the best interest of the child ..."
Essentially, if a birth mother lies about the reasons she is giving up a child for adoption and without the birth father's knowledge, that fraud is not legal basis to overturn the adoption. Carlton's attorney, Wes Hutchins says, "So we've created an environment in Utah, that incentivizes fraud to take place in the context of adoption."
Tuesday's ruling in Carlton's case may move things one step closer to making things right for an untold number of birth fathers across the country. Their unborn children have vanished as the birth mothers fled to Utah to take advantage of its forgiving adoption laws and give their babies away.
Part of the lower court's ruling against Carlton found that he did not have a claim as a parent under Utah's adoption laws. Utah's Supreme Court found that decision "erroneous."
Now it goes back to the district court to sort out the case. Carlton's suit claims his constitutional rights were violated by not only the birth mother and the Adoption Center of Choice, but also the adoptive family with whom his daughter lives.
Carlton is also party to a federal suit filed against the state by 12 fathers claiming Utah's adoption laws have violated their civil rights.
One of the agencies mentioned in the filing is the Adoption Center of Choice, which handled the adoption of Carlton's child. The ACC had its license revoked by the state on February 21.
The Division of Child and Family Services within the Utah Department Human Services now has legal custody of 13 children still in the process of being placed through ACC, though that number could grow.
According to the DHS, "The children are all over the place," and in homes around the country, while their cases are being settled through the state. A spokesperson says the "adoptions should not be disrupted, unless the child's safety is at risk."
While Carlton is comforted by his legal victory, it does not mean he will ever get his daughter back.
"This is one of the first hurdles that we have to overcome," said Carlton from his home in Williamsport, Penn. "Albeit, if I never do get my child, I am not going to stop the fight until people who are not affected by this law are outraged just as much as people who are."