Father wins Fla. court fight for baby Girlfriend had given child for adoption


PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The baby's name is Jason Robert Johnson -- it's official.

A Palm Beach Circuit judge yesterday awarded custody of the boy -- called Ernie by a Colorado couple who had hoped to adopt him -- to his birth father.

"I feel great, man," said Robert Johnson, who went to court after his former girlfriend gave their baby up for adoption in March.

When his lawyer called with the decision, Mr. Johnson said, "I almost hit the ceiling."

Judge Harold Cohen's 27-page decision brought joy to Mr. Johnson, 24, an unmarried landscape worker from the Bahamas.

The decision was not received as well by the Colorado couple, who had cared for the 3-month-old baby for two months while waiting to adopt him.

Judge Cohen's order was confidential by state law. But, according to Mr. Johnson's attorney, Glenn Mitchell, the judge ruled that Mr. Johnson had the right to protest the adoption because he admitted being the child's father.

And, Judge Cohen ruled, the adoption agency failed to prove that Jason would be better off with the Colorado couple.

"I guess the rights of the child have yet to be considered," said Bennett Cohn, attorney for Chosen Child, a non-profit agency in Lake Worth through which the Colorado couple arranged to adopt the baby.

Mr. Cohn said he would confer with the couple and decide in the next few days if he will appeal.

"Before I make that decision," he said, "I've got to pick myself up off the floor from this decision."

Mr. Cohn would not reveal the names of the prospective parents, college professors who would have made fine, caring parents, he said.

If they file an appeal, the judge's order gives them visitation rights until the case is settled.

Mr. Mitchell said the case points out the need for better laws requiring that unwed fathers be notified when their children are put up for adoption.

Mr. Johnson's former girlfriend, Jackeline Butler, said in a sworn statement that when she realized she was pregnant she tried to contact Mr. Johnson but couldn't find him. Mr. Johnson said he never moved from his home and had offered to support the child.

After the birth March 19 of "Baby Boy Butler," as court records identify him, the adoption agency did not contact Mr. Johnson. By state law, they weren't required to, Mr. Cohn said.

Mr. Johnson didn't find out for two weeks that the child had been born. By then the baby was in the custody of the Colorado couple, who planned to adopt him as soon as a judge had severed the rights of the birth father.

Before that could happen, Mr. Johnson hired Mr. Mitchell and sought custody of the child. They got a court order to return the baby to Florida. On June 7, Mr. Johnson took his son home for the first time.

Mr. Cohn had argued that Mr. Johnson "prenatally abandoned" the baby by breaking off his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend and stopping contact with her.

But Mr. Johnson said Ms. Butler spurned his offers to support the child and refused to speak with him.

Mr. Johnson and the baby will live in a modest suburban house with Mr. Johnson's mother, his brother and sister-in-law, who is expecting a child of her own soon.

While Mr. Johnson works, his sister-in-law watches Jason, and at night, his mother, Joanna, helps out.

For now, Mr. Johnson is enjoying peace of mind.

"It's just good to know it's official now. The child is mine," Mr. Johnson said. "My son, Jason, is officially mine."

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