A dad whose newborn son was given up for adoption by the birth mother — without his knowledge — is seeking $130 million in a lawsuit testing the boundaries of a biological father’s rights in Utah.
The adoption of Jake Strickland’s son just after he was born Dec. 29, 2010, was illegal and done “through gross misdirection and … clandestine conduct,” claims the suit filed Friday in the U.S. District Court of Utah.
Strickland alleges the mother, Whitney Pettersson, conspired with the adoptive parents, the adoption agency and attorneys to give up the boy — named “Baby Jack” in the suit — without allowing him to seek custody.
The complaint also strikes at Utah's parenting laws, accusing them of being “pro-adoption and anti-birth father.”
Attorney Wes Hutchins, speaking on behalf of Strickland, said his client just missed his son’s third birthday on Sunday — and is devastated that he can’t share important milestones in the boy’s life.
“It’s pulling him apart,” Hutchins told NBC News on Tuesday.
On his son's birthday, Strickland and his family gathered around a candle to sing “Happy Birthday” to his absent son, Hutchins said.
“They still think about him even though they don't have contact,” he added.
Strickland and Pettersson first met in 2009 as co-workers at a restaurant, according to court documents. Strickland said Pettersson was having problems with her marriage, and she later told him she got divorced. They began dating, and three months later, she texted him that she was pregnant.
Strickland left Utah for a temp job in Texas, but said he assured Pettersson that he wanted to be present in their child’s life, according to the lawsuit. He started a fund for the baby boy. The couple came up with a name: Jack.
But after Strickland returned to Utah, the romance dissolved. They began discussing parenting options. He said he told Pettersson that he would consider signing up with Utah’s putative father registry, which is how unmarried men can document with the state that they want parental rights.
But Strickland didn’t register. According to Hutchins, Pettersson warned him that if he did, she “would view it as an act of distrust” and keep his child from him.
“I don’t know if it was done as an act of vindictiveness,” Hutchins said.
Pettersson couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, and attorneys involved in the adoption weren’t immediately available. The adoption agency, LDS Family Services, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Strickland continued to financially support Pettersson, who also had a child from another relationship, until her alleged lies about their son began to unravel.
On Jan. 5, 2011, Strickland said he was astonished to learn that Pettersson had given birth a week earlier — unbeknownst to him. He also learned she was still legally married, which meant her estranged husband was the presumed father under state law.
The most devastating discovery, Strickland said in the lawsuit, was that Pettersson had already given up their child for adoption.
She even got her then-husband to agree to the adoption by telling him that he would be the one saddled with child support payments if she kept the boy, according to Hutchins.
Strickland, who now lives in Arizona, mounted a paternity claim. But his fight was complicated because he had never registered with the state for his paternal rights.
Despite contesting the adoption, Strickland learned in November 2011 that it was completed.
After a 2nd U.S. District judge shot down Strickland’s bid to gain custody, he filed an appeal to the state. His case is still under review.
Concurrently, Strickland’s federal lawsuit is seeking $30 million for the loss of the parent-child relationship caused by the adoption and $100 million as a deterrent to ensure another dad doesn't suffer his fate.
Hutchins said Utah’s laws are onerous on biological fathers who try to gain custody, noting that they must file a paternity petition, get a sworn affidavit, create a detailed child care plan and prove they were financially invested in the pregnancy, among other requirements.
Strickland’s custody case, meanwhile, isn’t the only one gaining attention in Utah. In another high-profile petition, Colorado dad Robert Manzanares is fighting for sole custody of his daughter, whom he claims was unfairly given up by her birth mother when the woman fled to Utah.
Utah State Sen. Todd Weiler told NBC affiliate KSL-TV that despite the increased interest in the issue, he’s not persuaded that Utah laws need to be dramatically overhauled.
“What we’re looking at in this lawsuit and a few other high-profile lawsuits are one or two bad examples out of 10,000,” Weiler said. “I don’t think it’s good policy for the state to look at one or two exceptions and say, ‘Let’s change the laws for everyone.’”