Sunday, December 31, 2006


CANTON - It's hidden beneath a brace on 17-year-old Stephanie Bennett's hand.Written in purple magic marker is the name of her daughter: Evelyn JoAnn.Today, that marker serves as a reminder of a quest. Tomorrow, though, it may be a permanent tattoo -- a memorial for a love lost, given up by her own volition.Bennett signed over permanent custody of her then-4-month-old daughter in September to A Child's Waiting, a private adoption agency in Copley Township in Summit County.She did so without her parents' permission or knowledge, which is legal in Ohio. But now she and her parents, Ranza and Judy Bennett, are fighting to get Evelyn back in a case that raises legal and ethical questions about the adoption process.Their story includes accusations that a guidance counselor at GlenOak High School arranged a meeting on school grounds between the teenager and the adoption agency, and that the adoption agency urged her to run away from home so it would be easier to sign papers away from her parents.Ranza and Judy Bennett have obtained temporary custody of Evelyn, but A Child's Waiting has disregarded the court order and, according to the Bennetts, urged the adoptive family to keep the child hidden and not disclose their location.``We just want our grandbaby home,'' Judy Bennett said at their two-story town house on Rem Circle Northeast. ``This has been nothing but a total nightmare.''A Child's Waiting and Plain School Superintendent Charles Smith declined to comment about the case. The guidance counselor, Thomas Saltsman, whose signature appears on some of the adoption papers, did not return a call seeking comment.Choosing adoptionEvelyn JoAnn Bennett was born April 17. At the time, Stephanie was a junior at GlenOak.She didn't think she could care for the girl. She wanted Evelyn to have a better life and the father wasn't around to help.So she approached Saltsman on Sept. 7 and told him that she wanted to give the = [100.0]baby up for adoption. She also told him she didn't want her parents to know.He pulled out a brochure from A Child's Waiting and arranged a meeting the next day at his office, Stephanie says. She signed paperwork on Sept. 8 that started the process. Saltsman signed as a witness.She picked out which family she wanted Evelyn to live with. She said she was given no names and doesn't remember anything about the family she chose or why she picked it.Ranza and Judy Bennett -- he's a truck driver and she's a homemaker -- say they had no idea what was taking place at the school.A couple of days after signing the paperwork, Saltsman and Stephanie called A Child's Waiting, according to an affidavit that Stephanie filed with Summit County Probate Court this month to contest the adoption process.Jennifer Bessemer-Marando, a counselor at the agency, advised her to run away, Stephanie said, telling her it was legal because she was the mother of the child and that she couldn't sign the final paperwork at her parents' house.At 3 a.m. Sept. 12, Stephanie and Evelyn ran away.She notified the adoption agency she was staying with friends in Carroll County. She didn't tell her parents. They had been having some trouble in their relationship -- nothing serious, both say, just regular teen-vs.-parent tension.The same day, A Child's Waiting arrived at the house in Carrollton for Stephanie to sign the final paperwork. It states that the adoptive family, the agency or an attorney would pay $15,000 in adoption expenses.``I was doubting myself,'' Stephanie said about what she was thinking while signing the paperwork. ``But I thought I was still making the right choice.''At 7 p.m., Evelyn was handed over to the adoption agency. Stephanie had no birth certificate. No Social Security card. No identification to prove that the baby was hers.Those records were at her parents' home in Canton.Girls go missingWhen Ranza and Judy Bennett awoke Sept. 12, they were terrified. Their daughter and granddaughter were missing.They called Canton police. It was recorded as a missing-person case.The Bennetts put together handmade fliers, with photos of their daughter and granddaughter. They also reported Evelyn to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Evelyn's photo is still on the group's Web site: Oct. 2, Ranza and Judy Bennett filed paperwork with Stark County Family Court seeking custody of Evelyn -- even though they say they didn't know where she or their daughter was. They felt the child was as much theirs as their daughter's. Evelyn lived at their home. They took care of her financially, and physically when their daughter was at school. The court granted them temporary custody.Meanwhile, Canton police learned that Stephanie had contacted A Child's Waiting and informed the Bennetts.Judy Bennett contacted Copley police on Oct. 3 to make a complaint against A Child's Waiting. A police report says an unnamed individual at the adoption agency said that ``they did speak to 17 year old but they cannot do business with her while she is a minor.''Stark County Family Court called A Child's Waiting and spoke with Crissy Bessemer-Kolarik, one of the counselors. She ``acknowledged that while she knew the whereabouts of the child, no information would be given, nor would this court's order be complied with by her or her agency,'' according to court paperwork.A Child's Waiting still hasn't complied with the order. Instead, the adoption agency appeared in court without the child and objected to Family Court's involvement, saying the judge has no jurisdiction in the case because the adoption process took place in Summit County Probate Court.Judge David Stucki has yet to rule on the issue.``How are they not breaking the law?'' Judy Bennett asked, referring to the agency's noncompliance with the court order. ``Are they saying this agency is above the law?''Agency commentsBessemer-Kolarik would not comment specifically on the case when contacted by the Beacon Journal, citing confidentiality, but she was willing to talk in general about adoptions.Ohio law allows a mother of any age to give up her child without interference from grandparents, she said. Most agencies working with minors also work with an attorney who can represent the interests of the minor, she said.An attorney was present with Stephanie but she claims she didn't realize the attorney was there to represent her.Agencies also provide counseling to mothers, Bessemer-Kolarik said.``Our heart goes out to any family that experiences a difficult situation,'' she said.The Bennetts' story is unusual, said Denise St. Clair, associate director of the National Center for Adoption Law & Policy at Capital University Law School in Columbus.``The majority of adoptions go forward without incident,'' she said. ``I know it happens, but it's not the majority. Most go off without incident.''Teen regrets decisionStephanie is back with her parents.She said she regrets her decision to give up Evelyn. Sitting on a couch in the living room, her legs tucked underneath her and wearing a sweatshirt with the word ``Feisty'' and an image of Tinkerbell on it, she responded to questions with one-word answers or in short phrases or sentences.Why does she regret it?``I have a whole new outlook,'' she responded.Why do you have a new outlook?``People,'' she said.What does that mean?Friends and others have told her she made a mistake, she said.She's unemotional, almost robotic in answering questions -- until she's asked to describe Evelyn. Then the white skin on her face reddens. Her eyes well up and tears spill onto her cheeks.``I miss just having her, period,'' she said. ``I miss her smells. I miss her cries. I miss her coos.''Stephanie contends that the adoption agency didn't counsel her.She met with the agency only twice, she said -- once to sign the initial paperwork and the second time to hand over the child.Ohio law doesn't require grandparents' consent or even notification for a minor.``The consent statutes in most states are pretty much silent on any requirements other than the consent of the birth parents,'' said St. Clair, the Center for Adoption Law & Policy's associate director.Ranza and Judy Bennett don't understand that.``I can't see how a minor child can sign their baby away,'' Ranza Bennett said. ``They can't even vote. They can't buy cigarettes. They can't even join the Army at that age. How can they have say over another human being when they have no say over themselves?''It may be legal, the Bennetts admit. But is it morally right, they ask, to keep the information from the grandparents?Judy Bennett also questions what happened in Carroll County. How could the adoption agency accept the child without a birth certificate? Without an ID?``Who's to say this baby wasn't just taken off the street?'' she asked.The Bennetts are upset with the school district for not notifying them. They are upset with the adoption agency for keeping any news about the adoption from them. And they are upset with the unknown family that has Evelyn.Baby's location unknownThe Bennetts don't know where Evelyn is living. Or with whom.They believe the people are from Wayne County.A Child's Waiting won't give up the location. The Bennetts' attorney, Don Caplea, asked Family Court last week to force the adoption agency to disclose the location. Caplea declined to comment.The Bennetts say they will continue to fight for Evelyn.``She was supposed to be home for Thanksgiving,'' Judy Bennett said.If they never see her again, the entire family -- the Bennetts have two other daughters -- plans to get tattoos with Evelyn's name to replace the purple marker.They hope it doesn't come to that.

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