ATTORNEY AT LAW
INFANT'S MURDER TURNS FAILED ADOPTION INTO TERRIBLE TRAGEDY (7-16-19)
When adoption proceedings work out as planned, they’re momentously thrilling for the new parents and life-changing in a very positive way for the children. As with everything else that the human hand touches, not all have happy endings. Few, however, match the heart wrenching tragedy that befell a 3-month-old child named Gabriel. The tragic details were recited in a July 3 ruling of national significance by the Iowa Court of Appeals.
In the Fall of 2013, Rachel McFarland learned that a coworker’s sixteen-year-old daughter, M.A., was pregnant. The coworker, Felicia West, asked if Rachel and her wife, Heidi, wanted to adopt the child. They agreed and thereafter remained in contact with West and M.A. throughout the pregnancy, providing material support such as taking the expectant teen for her medical appointments. M.A. eventually identified Andrew Weehler-Smith, a minor, as the likely father of the child.
On Oct. 7, the McFarlands retained attorney Jason Rieper to represent them in the private adoption. After Gabriel was born on Dec. 30, the McFarlands stayed with him in a separate hospital room while M.A. recovered in her room. Two days later, M.A. and West signed an authorization for Gabriel to be discharged to Rieper. He, in turn, left the hospital with the baby and placed him in the McFarland’s care.
To facilitate the adoption, Rieper initiated a proceeding to terminate parental rights on Jan. 22, asking the court at the same time to appoint guardians ad litem for M.A., Weehler-Smith, and Gabriel. In Iowa, as in most states, one of the methods by which termination of parental rights can be effected is through the execution of a formal surrender of those rights by the parents. Here, however, M.A. not only hadn’t signed such a surrender – denominated a Release of Custody in Iowa – but, on Feb. 25, she notified Rieper that she didn’t want the adoption to go through. As a consequence, the McFarlands were forced to return the child to M.A., through Rieper, on March 13.
Terribly sad and disappointing in its own right for the McFarlands, the return proved catastrophic when, on April 22, 2014, Gabriel died of abusive head trauma in his home with only Weehler-Smith present. M.A. had left the infant in the care of the 17-year-old high school junior when she left to run some errands. Weehler-Smith eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in connection with the child’s death. On March 25, 2015, he was sentenced to a 50-year jail term, of which he must serve at least 17 years before being eligible for parole.
On Aug. 7, the McFarlands initiated a malpractice lawsuit against Rieper, alleging negligence in his failure to secure a Release From Custody from M.A. prior to his placing the child with them, and in failing to notify them that he had not procured the document. Following a two-week trial, a jury awarded the McFarlands $3.25 million for past and future emotional distress.
In its ruling two weeks ago, however, the Iowa Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that judgment and dismissed the McFarland lawsuit. While the appellate court didn’t enunciate its rationale all that clearly, it appears to have found it decisive that Rieper’s conduct wasn’t “illegitimate” or, in the court’s view, highly likely to produce emotional distress. The decision is also unconvincing in its attempt to distinguish the McFarland lawsuit from other cases where a lawyer’s malpractice was deemed sufficient to support a judgment for emotional distress.
While the soundness of the appellate court ruling is a matter of legitimate debate, there’s no denying the devastating double whammy endured by the McFarlands. For they not only lost the child they loved, but the child himself lost his life. A lawyer for Rieper saw the appellate court ruling as vindication for his client. “It’s surprising how many adoptions fail,” he told the Des Moines Register. “People change their mind”. Which, being unquestionably true, is why no adoption should ever be taken for granted until it’s absolutely final.
Here, for instance, It’s possible that even if M.A. had signed the Release from Custody, she may have nonetheless sought to have it set aside. But if the McFarlands had clearly understood that the document had never been obtained in the first place, they would have been on notice of just how shaky their adoption prospects actually were.
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Daniel Leddy's law column has been published by the Staten Island Advance for over 25 years, appearing every Tuesday on the editorial page. His most recent column appears below. An archive of his columns can be found here