Adoptions are private for a reason -- to protect a child. But, with such secrecy, a lawyer can set up a deal between a mother and adoptive parents and move a baby into a new home very quickly. By the time a birth father catches up, it is often just too late.
For 10 months, Michael Marek's life as a new father has involved endless court dates and a few supervised visits in public places. He is fighting for a baby that is biologically his, but living with an adoptive family that does not want to give her up. Out of respect for their privacy, we will not use their names.
"This is tough, this is really hard," said Marek.
Birth fathers like Marek are stuck in a gray area of adoption law. A single mother can put her baby up for adoption, and if the father objects, his only hope is to enter a long and expensive court battle. The state offers men like Marek no protection.
Last year, his live-in girlfriend was pregnant, but they broke up. Marek tried to stay involved in the pregnancy.
"I'm begging her to go see a doctor, I'm begging her to take prenatal stuff, I'm begging to pay for the doctor, I'm begging, I'm begging," said Marek.
Marek filed a petition to establish a parental relationship in Lake County Superior Court. Then, a month before the baby was due, he received a disturbing text message from his ex, telling him the baby died. But Marek tracks down a social worker who tells him the baby is actually alive and being put up for adoption.
"I felt robbed man, I felt cheated, I couldn't believe it was real," said Marek.
Marek says the lawyer, Jim Handy, took steps to hide the baby from him. The mother is from Lake County, but the daughter was born in Sonoma County. The new parents take the baby home to Solano County. Then, Handy files all the paperwork in a fourth county -- Alameda.
Marek finds the lawyer about a week after the birth. He tells Handy he wants to raise the girl, but Handy does nothing to stop the adoption.
A family law specialist from the state bar tells us that is wrong.
"I think the seriousness of adoptions and terminating parental rights is so critical, particularly when you have a person who is committed to that child to summarily say, 'Well I'm proceeding with the adoption, you do what you need to do,' is not professional," said attorney Steven Ruben.
"It's kind of legal, but is it truly honest and ethical?" asks Ellen Roseman, a counselor who has been involved in more than 2,000 adoptions. She says lawyers often bend the law to get rid of birth fathers. "There's a feeling that they're sperm donors, let's exclude them, let's not put our time and energy into them and let's get rid of them as quickly as we can."
And that is what Handy tells expectant mothers on his Web site: "We will work with you in terminating (the father's) rights." To the question, "Will anybody find out'?" about the adoption, Handy writes, "We can take extra precautions if there is somebody you do not want to know."
We called Handy's office repeatedly. He did not respond. When we showed up at his Little Angel Adoptions office in El Dorado Hills, he locke d the door.
Handy should be used to the spotlight. Three years ago, an adoption he set up was labeled "an abduction" by the Yolo County district attorney.
"It seemed like he was more interested in making the adoption go through and getting whatever fee he gets than properly terminating the father's rights and making that adoption work correctly," said Yolo County D.A. Steve Mount.
In that case, Jessee Baldizan had court-ordered shared custody of his three year-old girl, but Handy arranged for a couple from Alabama to meet the girl's mother at a park.
"And then the mother said, 'Well that's your new mommy and daddy, you need to go with them,' and the adoptive parents said, 'They just took my granddaughter's hand and walked away,'" said paternal grandmother Janice Wise.
Once again, Handy did not tell the birth father about the adoption until his child was already out of state. The attorney also sent adoption paperwork to a different county that had nothing to do with the case, making it hard for Baldizan and his mother to find Deanna.
"It was panic because I didn't know who she was with, what kind of people they were, was she OK, was she safe? It was awful," said Wise.
Three months after the authorities got involved, the Alabama couple returned the girl. Her grandmother now has full custody.
The prosecutor says he found evidence Handy deliberately lied about trying to contact Deanna's dad before setting up the adoption, and that he got away with it because no one was watching.
"I think the system is flawed. I think there needs to be some independent person who's not a paid part of the process because that allows for people like Mr. Handy, if he wanted to be unscrupulous, to be unscrupulous," said Mount.
The state agency charged with overseeing adoptions is the California Department of Social Services, but it does not get involved with birth father's rights. A man with a custody claim is on his own -- he will have to go to court.
And that is where Michael Marek is stuck now. The casino dealer's money is running out, and so are his chances of getting full custody. Still, he is preparing a room for his little girl. He says it helps to go slow, with a tiny brush.
"I don't know how to act right now, like I don't know how to process how I'm feeling, I don't have a clue, and I just want to focus on something small that I can accomplish, you know, just one little piece at a time," said Marek.
Handy is no longer involved in the Marek case. The adoptive family hired a new powerful law firm that specializes in contested adoptions. Their latest offer would give Marek just two hours a month with his baby, no holidays, and he just will not accept that. Both Marek and Wise filed complaints against Handy with the state bar. Neither was investigated.
By the way, the average cost for private adoptions is $15,000 to $30,000.