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Jury: Mom Conspired to Shut Dad Out of Adoption, Awards Him $7.85 Million

December 6, 1995

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) _ A jury of mostly middle-aged men ruled that a lawyer conspired to help a woman give her child up for adoption against the father’s wishes and awarded the father $7.85 million.

Dr. John Kessel of Hickory, N.C., sued the child’s mother, Anne G. Conaty of Huntington, her parents, her brother and her Beverly Hills, Calif., lawyer, David Leavitt.

Leavitt, who claims to have placed 9,000 children for adoption in 35 years of practice, was ordered to pay $5 million in punitive damages to Kessel. In its decision Monday, the jury didn’t specify who should pay the rest of the punitive and compensatory damages.

During the trial, Leavitt was accused of selling Ms. Conaty’s son.

``I don’t care how you sugarcoat it, they were selling this baby,″ Kessel’s lawyer, Marvin Masters, said during closing arguments.

Ms. Conaty surrendered her parental rights and allowed the boy, now 4, to be adopted by a Canadian family. The adoptive parents, clients of Leavitt’s, live in Calgary, Alberta, where the law says unmarried fathers have no rights unless they lived with the mother at least a year prior to the child’s birth.

Some advocates of birth father’s rights have called Alberta an ``adoption haven″ used by U.S. lawyers who prey upon birth mothers seeking to avoid the fathers of their children.

In March, the province changed its adoption law to require that adoptive babies must be Canadian citizens or legally admitted to Canada for permanent residence. Adoptions must be made through licensed adoption agencies or provincial governments.

Kessel contended he was trying to claim paternity in West Virginia courts while Ms. Conaty’s family helped her go into hiding, give birth and give the child up for adoption.

George Stolze, the lawyer for the Conaty family and Leavitt, said that when Kessel found out about the pregnancy, he urged Ms. Conaty to have an abortion, and she refused because of her Catholic upbringing.

``She chose life for her child instead of death,″ Stolze said.

Stolze also accused Kessel of seeing another woman when he was engaged to Ms. Conaty, and of harassing her during the pregnancy. Ms. Conaty and Kessel never married.

``The verdict came as quite a shock,″ Leavitt said. The other defendants wouldn’t comment.

An adoption lawyer who practices in Virginia and Washington, D.C., was surprised that his Beverly Hills colleague was caught up in the dispute.

``David Leavitt is a very well-respected attorney, the national grand master of adoption practice,″ Stanton Phillips said. ``As for baby selling, I find that hard to believe. He’s definitely not one of these people you hear about every now and then, carrying a suitcase full of money to the office. He’s someone who runs a very well-respected practice of helping people find birth mothers.″

Robert G. Johnston, dean of The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and an adoption law specialist, called it ``most inappropriate″ for lawyers to handle adoptions without the involvement of licensed social service agencies.

``There are lawyers who broker babies, and they do it just for the fee, and they are in my mind quite disreputable for doing that,″ he said.

``I would never proceed by trying to circumvent the father’s rights. It’s dangerous to you, it’s dangerous to the mother, and it certainly can be disastrous to the child.″

Johnston said a 1971 case, Illinois vs. Stanley, established the precedent that a father must consent to an adoption or be given a chance to a fair hearing in court. However, he said, the case law is complicated in international adoptions.

``Then you have conflicts of law, and the court that is hearing the adoption is naturally going to favor its own self-interest,″ he said.

``In Alberta, they have concluded that they favor adoption and put the child’s rights ahead of the father’s. They favor adoptions at the expense of the father.″

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