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Unrelated Man's Custody of Girl Overturned

Families: Court rules that, despite the significant role Kevin Thomas played in raising the child, judge should not have given him rights as her 'natural' father.

February 10, 1996|LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appeals court has reversed a highly controversial ruling that not only awarded sole custody of a then-5-year-old girl to an unrelated Van Nuys man but revoked the visitation rights of her biological mother, who has not seen the child in more than two years.

With no blood ties to the child, the man never should have been legally declared her "natural" father, the appeals court ruled, sending the case back to family court in Los Angeles to try again to determine how to divide custody and visitation rights.

Douglas Kevin Thomas was awarded custody in 1993 of Courtney Thomas, who will be 8 this month, on the grounds that he had been so involved in her daily care--as a close friend of her mother--that he had earned the status of father.

The ruling came after the girl's mother, Catherine Thomas of Thousand Oaks, twice risked prison by violating court orders and fleeing with the child.

The relationship was so close that Kevin Thomas was listed on Courtney's birth certificate as her father, although he is openly gay, and he even changed his name to match hers and her mother's--from Douglas Kevin McCain to Douglas Kevin Thomas.

But the appeals court found that despite the significant role Kevin Thomas played in the girl's life, he could not be given the rights of a natural father.

"Expanding the definition of natural parent in the manner advocated . . . could expose others to litigation brought by child-care providers of long standing, relatives, successive sets of stepparents or other close family friends," Judge James R. Brandlin wrote in a 14-page opinion issued Friday.

Brandlin added that the ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin "effectively deprived Courtney . . . of her former home, her natural mother and her half-brothers."

A lawyer for Catherine Thomas said she wept with joy when told of the decision and was so emotionally overcome that she was unable to speak.

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"She realized for the first time in several years that she is going to see her daughter again," said attorney Michael Goch of Encino, who handled the appeal for Thomas for free because she had long ago run out of money for legal fees.

Goch said Thomas--who was never declared an unfit parent--was handicapped from the outset because she lacked Kevin Thomas' financial resources.

Even though Goldin's decision in 1993 technically allowed Catherine Thomas to seek monitored visits with Courtney, Goch said, she was unable to afford them. The court required that they take place in a secured facility with a professional escort, because of her record of fleeing with the girl..

"Justice requires money, and when you don't have it, you don't get justice," Goch said.

Kevin Thomas' lawyer, paternity rights specialist Glen H. Schwartz of Encino, said he "loved" the appeals court decision because it recognized the significance of Kevin Thomas in the life of Courtney. He also said he fully expects the status quo to be maintained when the case returns to Goldin's court for review.

"Obviously, I'm somewhat disappointed with the Court of Appeal that it did not feel it could invest Kevin with the title of 'legal father,' " Schwartz said.

"But that is a distinction without a [practical] difference because we feel absolutely confident that the same trial court that heard this case will find it is in Courtney's best interest to remain with Kevin."

Schwartz added that Kevin Thomas never objected to Courtney seeing her mother. But he said Catherine Thomas has made no effort to see the child since July 1993, when they were apprehended in Pittsburgh and returned to Los Angeles.

Goch adamantly denied that, saying Thomas very much wanted to see her daughter but could not afford the visits' requirements. He also said that soon after Goldin's decision in Kevin Thomas' favor, Catherine Thomas tried phoning her daughter at Kevin Thomas' home but received no response.

The case began before Courtney was born in February 1988, when Kevin Thomas and Catherine Thomas allegedly agreed to raise the coming child together. The appeals court took note that Kevin Thomas had indeed visited Courtney, who had serious birth defects, in the hospital every day after her birth.

Once she was home, the court continued, he took an active role in her daily care--taking her to doctors and to special educational programs as she got older, and bringing her to his own home on weekends.

But in 1992, he and Catherine Thomas had a falling out, the exact cause of which has never been fully disclosed.

In an interview with The Times in 1993 during the custody dispute, Catherine Thomas contended that she never really agreed to raise Courtney with Kevin but that Kevin had insinuated himself into their lives and was gaining too much control, to her increasing alarm.

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