There are some news stories that are so shocking, so incredible and so downright disturbing that you find yourself staring at your smartphone for a few minutes before you can form a real reaction. Seldom does a news event involve that frothy mixture of race, sex, class, law and religion that transforms it from a human interest story to a larger commentary about the times in which we live (or could’ve lived). Nevertheless, the story of Terry Achane, Tira Bland, the Freis family of Utah and one adoption gone horribly horribly wrong will justifiably dominate the news cycle for the next 48 hours.
On Monday 4th District Judge Darold McDade declared that Terry Achane was the rightful legal custodian of two year old girl Taleah and that she must be returned to him from the Freis family in Utah within 60 days. The problem? The Freis family, willingly, illegally adopted Taleah with the help of The Adoption Center of Choice and now pledges to fight the judge’s ruling as long as they can. This story is both sad and maddening since it is literally a petri dish for half a dozen major sociological issues in the United States right now. And while it is hard to properly dissect exactly who was wrong and where, but we can actually start with Terry Achane and his wife (now ex-wife) Tira Bland.
Achane, a career military man, had been married to his wife Tira Bland for a year a half when they found out they were going to have a baby. Unfortunately the marriage was going through a rough patch that was only exacerbated by Achane being assigned to be a drill sergeant in South Carolina leaving his pregnant wife Tira (and her child from a first marriage) in Texas. Bland, fearing the marriage was done for, was afraid of being left with two children and suggested giving the new baby up for adoption or having an abortion. Terry vehemently disagreed, and suggested they go to counseling all the while continuing to pay the mortgage and all of the household bills for the family in Texas while he was deployed in South Carolina like any responsible husband is supposed to. However, Tira had other plans.
According to evidence and Judge McDade’s 48 page ruling Tira Bland began negotiations with The Adoption Agency of Choice without Terry’s knowledge. And even though she and her husband were in a “cooling off” cooling off period, he had made arrangements with the military to come back for the birth of their child and continued his financial responsibilities. Unbeknownst to him Tira was flown to Utah where she delivered their baby Teleah (the name Terry had given the baby) on March 1st 2011 and handed the child over to the Fries family. Bland, in order to cover up her deceit, gave the adoption agency a false address so that they could not find Terry Achane and told the Freis family that he had abandoned her and their children. However, she made one critical error, she informed the agency that she was still married to the father of the infant and that he had no idea she was giving the child up for adoption, let alone given consent. Even though the Freis were informed that they were adopting a child without the knowledge or consent of the married father, and that he would likely legally challenge the adoption if he ever found out, they continued anyway, declaring that the baby was ordained by God to be in their care. When Tira Bland finally told Achane what happened he contacted the adoption agency and hospitals searching for his child and eventually got in touch with the Freis lawyer where the entire ordeal began.
A few things about this case really point out to the challenges faced by Americans everyday when it comes to family planning, class and other issues. The role that active deployments, along with blended families has begun to wreak havoc on military families since the Gulf War era (in particular African American families when 50% of all marriages include a child from a previous relationship.) While I’m sure that the deployment to South Carolina was not on the only factor in their dissolution of the Achane marriage the fact remains that Military Deployment policies have been horrible slow in adapting to the changing nature of American families. Next, this case reeks of white privilege and religious fundamentalism. The Fries family (who are white) went through with this process even though they knew the entire process was more akin to child trafficking than adoption. Why? Because they were willing to believe the narrative of the deadbeat Black Father and they just assumed that Terry Achane would neither care or have the means to fight them in court for his daughter. What else could explain the behavior of a family that has 4 biological children and one adopted child already, aggressively fighting for another long before the girl was even born? Further, the state of Utah has become notorious for covering for these types of adoptions, given that the state operates as much like a theocracy as a Democracy and even has lawyers who specialize in dragging out these kinds of cases in order to cover for fundamentalist families that engage in high end baby snatching.
One can only hope that after a year of this type of legal wrangling that the Fries family will be compelled (likely legally) to not delay past the 60th day and give this child back to her rightful father and guardian. But if not, at least we can trust that with the amount of public and media scrutiny on the case that Terry Achane will have tremendous public support until the day he and his child are re-united.