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Justices Rule for Adoptive Parents of San Diego Boy : Law: State high court refuses to give custody of 4-year-old to biological father over his delay in accepting parenthood. Opinion limits impact of 1992 decision.


SAN FRANCISCO — Siding with the adoptive parents in a wrenching tug of war over a San Diego child, the California Supreme Court on Monday refused to give custody of a 4-year-old boy to the biological father who has sought to block his son's adoption.

In a 6-1 decision, the court denied Mark King, 25, parental rights on the grounds that he failed to accept parenthood promptly upon learning of his former girlfriend's pregnancy. The court also said that the child, known as Michael H., could suffer psychological harm if taken from the only parents he has known since birth.

"If such an unwed father is allowed to prevail after years of litigation," wrote Justice Stanley Mosk for the majority, "the resulting disruption in familial relationships and living arrangements can have a very damaging impact on the child's psychological growth and development."

Monday's opinion limited the potential impact of a 1992 ruling the court made in favor of biological fathers. The court had determined then that a biological father could stop his child's adoption if he readily committed to parental responsibilities.

But the majority said that King failed this test because he supported adoption during much of the pregnancy. If a father is permitted to ignore responsibility during pregnancy and then assert it after a child's birth, fewer couples will be willing to try to adopt, the court reasoned.

"We are relieved and exhausted," said Peggy Stenbeck, 36, the San Diego adoptive mother. She is a homemaker and her husband, John, 37, is an accountant.

"It shows that California is not going to be willing to allow children to be taken from the only homes they have ever known," said William F. Abrams, who represented the Stenbecks. "This is a victory for children. This is victory for families."

King was 20 when he impregnated his girlfriend, Stephanie, then 15. He wanted to marry her, but she declined, saying he first had to quit drinking and using drugs and that she wanted to graduate from high school. The couple, who lived in Arizona, agreed the baby should be put up for adoption.

During a trip to California, Stephanie met the Stenbecks, who wanted to adopt a baby. Stephanie told King about the couple and they made preparations for their baby to be adopted.

King attended some birth classes with Stephanie, went to at least one yard sale to buy baby clothes and bought a trailer for the couple to live in together. He also contributed to covering Stephanie's expenses, attended her doctor appointments, arranged to videotape a sonogram of the developing fetus and enrolled with her in prenatal nutrition classes.

But Stephanie began to feel smothered by him and broke off the relationship, according to court records. Later, when he refused to make her family a copy of the sonogram videotape, she allegedly rushed at him with a pen. He pushed her down on a chair, bruising her arm. She had him arrested, and he later tried to commit suicide.

King described the suicide attempt as the "turning point" in his life. He decided he wanted to keep the baby, although he did not tell Stephanie this out of fear of worsening their relationship, according to court records.

Stephanie eventually moved into the San Diego home of the Stenbecks and arranged for them to adopt her child. King filed a petition in Arizona asserting his paternity rights on the same day that his son, unbeknown to him, was born.

When King discovered the birth a week later, he telephoned the Stenbecks and told them of his intentions, court records showed. But the couple went to court to keep Michael, and Stephanie opposed giving King custody.

Lower courts, relying on the 1992 state Supreme Court precedent in favor of biological fathers, ruled in favor of King but allowed the child to remain with the Stenbecks pending resolution of the legal struggle.

King was allowed to visit the boy once a month but could not tell him he was his father, said Carmela F. Simoncini, his attorney. She said Monday that she strongly doubted the couple will continue to allow him to visit.

"These people have really gone out of their way to make it impossible" for King to establish a bond with Michael, Simoncini said. "Now that they have a favorable ruling, I doubt if he will ever be able to see Michael again."

Simoncini complained the court has "completely retracted" its previous position in favor of biological fathers. "I think that is really unfair because the mother can change her mind several times before she ultimately decides what to do with the baby."

Peggy Stenbeck declined to discuss the situation with King. She also refused to say whether she and her husband would allow King to visit in the future.

She said Michael is a "wonderful 4 1/2-year-old." He has a 6-year-old brother, who also was adopted.

"I guess until we finally sign that adoption decree, that is when it is really final," Stenbeck said. "It has been a very long labor and delivery."

King could not be reached for comment.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard dissented, arguing that the court's 1992 ruling protected biological fathers like King. However, she said she would not apply that ruling retroactively to King's case. A lower court cut off his parental rights before the high court made the landmark decision.

"To remove Michael at this stage from the only family he has ever known," Kennard wrote, "and to turn him over to Mark, Michael's biological father but through no fault of his own a stranger to Michael, would disrupt Michael's emotional and psychological universe for reasons that young Michael would likely be incapable of understanding or accepting."

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