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SALT LAKE CITY — A legal tug-of-war is playing out in Utah between adoptive parents and the father of a 21-month-old girl.
A Utah judge recently ordered the adoptive parents to give the child to the biological father, Terry Achane of South Carolina, said his lawyer, Scott Wiser.
The adoptive parents, Jared and Kristi Frei, have countered with a legal motion to keep the girl, whom they've raised since she was born, attorney Larry Jenkins confirmed.
That sets up months, if not years, of more legal wrangling and uncertainty about who will raise Leah Frei.
The Freis, who live in a Provo suburb, legally adopted her through an agency in 2010. They have four biological children and two adopted children, including Leah.
The birth father says Tira Bland, his wife at the time, traveled from their Texas home while he was away on military service in South Carolina and gave birth in Utah. She signed off on an adoption in Utah to the Freis without his knowledge or consent, Wiser said.
"Obviously, Mr. Achane would like to have his child returned to him," Wiser said.
The toddler will remain in temporary custody of the adoptive parents as the appeal process plays out, Wiser said. The next hearing in state district court is scheduled for January.
The Freis are willing to allow Achane to visit the girl but want him to travel from his home in South Carolina to Utah and pay his own way, Wiser said. Achane can't afford that, he said.
Achane and Bland divorced in March 2012. Neither returned phone calls from The Associated Press.
The Freis declined to speak with the AP. Their attorney said they asked that he not give any interviews either.
The couple did release a statement to KUTV earlier this week in which they say Achane abandoned his wife before Leah's birth and has done nothing to build a relationship with the toddler.
"We are deeply saddened by the court's decision to give the child back to a father she does not know at all," the Freis said in the statement. "We believe that the court made serious legal errors in his decision and will address these concerns with the Utah Court of Appeals."
The Freis said in their blog that Achane has never sent clothes, toys or gifts for holidays or birthdays and never asked about her health or well-being.
Achane's attorney says his client did not find out that his daughter had been given up for adoption until three months afterward. Having recently taken a job as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, S.C., Achane moved there to get set up and expected to return to Texas to see his child born, Wiser said.
"Since he was in the military, he couldn't just run and track her down," Wiser said. "Duped would be a good way to describe it."
When Bland told him of the adoption, Achane immediately called the adoption agency, Wiser said. When that didn't go anywhere, he hired Wiser and filed legal paperwork.
The Adoption Center of Choice, the Utah agency that handled the Frei's adoption, is currently operating under corrective action after state regulators discovered deficiencies with its documents, said Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services.
Although that issue is not directly related to the Frei's adoption, Sollis said the state plans to review the adoption of Leah to make sure all rules were followed.
This case and another recent high-profile custody showdown have put the spotlight on Utah's adoption system, which appears to have become a magnet for women and adoptive parents seeking quick adoptions.
The Utah Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a Florida man whose girlfriend came to Utah to give a baby up for adoption without his consent. The ruling opens the door for Ramsey Shaud to fight to get custody of a 2-year-old daughter he's never met back from her adoptive parents.