Dickson custody ruling reignites debate over parental rights - WSMV Channel 4

Dickson custody ruling reignites debate over parental rights

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Sonya Hodgins' custody case has reignited the debate over parental rights in Tennessee. Sonya Hodgins' custody case has reignited the debate over parental rights in Tennessee.
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

More than 8,000 people have signed a petition calling for officials to allow a 9-year-old girl who was removed from her Dickson County foster parents and placed with a birth father she had never met in Nebraska to return home to Middle Tennessee.

The case has polarized those on both sides of the debate over what is most important: the rights of natural parents or the best interest of a child.

Sonya Hodgins had lived with her foster parents since she was about 1 year old. They legally adopted her when she was 3, but that adoption was overturned in 2009 when an appeals court ruled in favor of John McCaul, the birth father.

The court found McCaul's parental rights should not have been terminated even though he was serving a long prison term.

This latest conflict comes exactly 20 years after two very high-profile adoption cases in Tennessee prompted a change in the state's adoption laws.

Mort and Jamie Hill, of Bellevue, adored their adopted daughter, Sarah, but when she was 1 year old in 1993, they had to say goodbye.

The birth father was a teenager from Mississippi who had never intended to give up his child.

The court ruled in the young man's favor, deciding his rights were more important than baby Sarah's best interest.

Another high-profile case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court that same year. Darrell Robertson, who was never told he had a son, won the right to raise him.

"A fundamental right as a human being is to have your children," Robertson said.

The two very emotional cases prompted the legislature to clarify exactly under what conditions a birth parent's rights can be terminated.

Attorney Bob Tuke helped rewrite the law.

"If there are no grounds to terminate, then you never get to the best interest of the child because the Constitution protects the rights of all biological parents," Tuke said.

Basically, as long as the birth parents tried to be parents - wanted to be parents - their rights prevail, no matter how heartbreaking the goodbye.

The children in the two cases from 1993 are now grown, of course, and while they never did return to their adoptive parents, Tuke tells us both children now have relationships with those families - parents who loved them and then had to give them up.

Channel 4 News asked DCS about Sonya Hodgins' case. In a statement, spokesman Rob Johnson wrote:

"Our family service workers and their colleagues in another state have worked, and continue to work, hard and thoughtfully on this case. DCS has long provided services to the child, and we developed and worked on a transition plan. We have done what we could and should."

If it chooses to, the foster family can appeal the juvenile court's custody ruling.

The family has started a Facebook page called "Bring Sonya Home."

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