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Ruling Favors Birth Parents Court Refuses To Return Boy To Adoptive Couple

CHAPEL HILL HERALD, July 30, 1994, p. 1
Jeffrey McMenemy
Raleigh The N.C. Supreme Court refused Friday to take a young boy from his biological parents in Michigan and return him to his adoptive parents in Hurdle Mills.

Its decision is the latest development in a bitter custody battle that has raged for most of the 6-year-old's life, a battle marked by dueling charges of religious persecution and cult brainwashing. Chapel Hill attorney Donna Davis said Friday that the boy's biological parents are ecstatic with the court's decision.

"We're obviously very pleased. My clients are very pleased. It's been a long, long six years. We just hope this is the end, but that all depends on what the Petersens decide to do," Davis said.

The adoptive parents, William and Patricia Petersen of Hurdle Mills, are members of the Way International, a religious sect that some critics have called a "destructive cult."

Patricia Petersen declined to comment on the decision when reached Friday afternoon, but the couple's Hillsborough attorney said he will appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

"This has been extremely traumatic for the Petersens," Robert Hassell said Friday. "This was their child from the day he left the hospital after he was born to the day he was taken from them. They haven't seen or spoken a word to him in the last three years."

But Davis said 6-year-old Paul Rogers quickly adjusted to living with his older brother in Michigan. Pamela Pitsch - formerly Pamela Rogers - and William Rowe, his biological parents, have joint custody.

"He's a very healthy, very happy, well adjusted child who loves living with his older brother," Davis said, "and his parents really are raising him jointly, even though they're living apart."

She said Paul immediately went into counseling when he left the Petersen home and moved to Michigan and has had no serious problems adjusting.

Durham Herald-Sun, July 30, 1994

"He certainly hasn't had any problems to write home about. He's been going to counseling and he's been accepted by my client's extended family," she said.

Hassell contends the Petersens' religious beliefs were put on trial during a district court hearing in 1991 and laments the emotional damage that was done to the boy when he was taken from their home.

"Clearly their religious affiliation was a main contention in the district court hearing," Hassell said. "All the psychiatrists agreed the emotional impact on the child is like having both of his parents killed simultaneously."

In its decision, the state's highest court ruled the biological parents' "paramount right to custody" of their son far outweighed any claims the Petersens made that they had been wrongly questioned about their religion during an earlier proceeding.

"There was no finding that [the biological parents] had neglected their child's welfare in any way, based on the record, [their] paramount right to custody of their minor child had to prevail," state Supreme Court Justice Sarah Parker wrote in her 13-page decision.

Parker said because there was no evidence the boy's biological parents abused or neglected him, a lower court had no authority to grant the Petersens legal custody. Mother-to-be gave up baby

The controversy began in 1987 when the Petersens agreed to adopt Pamela Pitsch's then-unborn baby. The Petersens subsequently found Pitsch a place to live and paid her medical and living expenses.

Pitsch signed a release relinquishing parental rights to the boy and returned to her native Michigan.

But just weeks after she arrived there, she and the boy's father filed a motion revoking the adoption release, alleging the young mother had been brainwashed by members of the Way International.

"There was definitely undue influence exerted, there's no question about it," Davis said.

Their three-year fight to regain custody found success in September 1991 when the N.C. Supreme Court ruled proper adoption procedures had not been followed and ordered a custody hearing in the Orange County District Court.

District Judge Patricia Love awarded custody to the boy's biological parents after a November 1991 hearing, during which the Petersens were questioned extensively about their religious beliefs.

A witness called by Pitsch's attorney called the Way International a "destructive force" and suggested its followers would deny their children medical care if they fell ill.

Hassell denied that and said the Petersens have been excellent parents.

But the biological parents were dealt another legal blow in September 1993 when the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Love erred when she allowed questions

Durham Herald-Sun, July 30, 1994

about the Petersens' religion. The court said the couple's constitutional right to religious freedom had been violated.

Pitsch immediately appealed that decision and the boy has remained with his biological mother in Michigan while both sides in the custody battle waited for the state's highest court to rule. Adoption concerns

Speaking during an interview from his Hillsborough office, Hassell said any couple considering adoption had to be discouraged and perhaps a little frightened by the high court's decision.

"I think this decision will have to discourage people, I can't see how it won't. This has been going on for a long time."

But Martha Milam, a Durham attorney and expert in family law, said couples can be confident an adoption procedure will hold, provided they are diligent in following the proper procedure during the process.

"They got into trouble because the father was improperly notified. But I believe if you follow the proper procedures and make sure all the parties waive their parental rights, you can be reasonably sure you won't have this problem," Milam said.

Still, biological parents can revoke their waiver within 90 days of an adoption, she said.

"It's very important the procedures be followed because you're talking about treading on someone's constitutional rights when you relinquish parental control," Milam said.

Davis agreed, saying she has clients who've successfully adopted children without any legal problems.

"I don't think this should discourage anybody or impact anybody's decision to adopt. ... If you play by the rules you won't have any problems," Davis said.

Copyright 1994 The Durham Herald Co. CHAPEL HILL HERALD

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