A lesbian couple have been awarded $3.25million for emotional distress against their own lawyer after their adopted baby boy was reclaimed by his birth mother, only to be murdered by his father weeks later.
Rachel and Heidi McFarland, of Des Moines, Iowa, were awarded the considerable sum after a jury agreed that their adoption attorney, Jason Rieper, acted negligently by not getting the child’s biological parents to sever their parental rights.
The McFarlands were at the birth of their son Gabriel in December 2013 – and even cut the umbilical cord.
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Within a few weeks, Gabriel’s father, Drew Weehler-Smith, then-17, was arrested for murdering the little boy. He has since been sentenced to 50 years in jail.
The couple said they were devastated when they learned that the little boy they considered their own son had died – while watching the news.
‘It’s like he’s been taken away from you again,’ Rachel McFarland told the Des Moines Register in 2014.
‘We brought him home from the hospital. I cut his umbilical cord.’
The couple, who had supported the mother financially through her pregnancy and had been with her at every doctor’s appointment, spent every waking moment with the baby – and had even planned to learn sign language after learning Gabriel was born deaf in one ear, in case he lost the hearing in his other ear.
‘It just felt natural. When he was with us it just felt right. Like we were always meant to be moms,’ Rachel told WHOTV.com.
The couple said they repeatedly asked Atkins if she wanted to go ahead with the adoption and she said ‘yes.’
After the tragic loss of their son, they filed a negligence lawsuit against Rieper in August 2014, claiming he failed to complete the basic adoption paperwork, which left the couple powerless when Atkins decided she wanted her baby back, Yahoo reports.
The couple said that the judgement felt like a weight has been lifted although they revealed they were unlikely to see all, if any, of the sum awarded for emotional distress after Rieper revealed he plans to challenge the result.
Rachel, who now has two daughters with Heidi, said that when they were told in March that Atkins wanted Gabriel back, their lawyer said there was nothing they could do.
‘If the lawyer had done what he was supposed to do, the birth mother would have signed a document called a release of custody and 4 days after she signed it, it would have been almost impossible for her or the baby’s father to take Gabriel away from them,’ Roxanne Conlin, who represented the couple, wrote in a post on Facebook.
‘The lawyer just didn’t get around to it.
Conlin added that the jury had been unaware that Weehler-Smith had murdered the little boy five weeks after he was returned to his birth mother who was out buying concert tickets.
‘The jury ‘also didn’t know that for every hour of every day he was not with them, Heida and Rachel worried that he was living in a cockroach invested apartment with a 16-year-old who drank and took drugs.
‘God bless the civil justice system for holding people accountable for the damage they do to others and to this jury who came to the right conclusion even without all of the evidence.’
Rieper’s lawyer said he plans to challenge the jury’s verdict in the civil trial.
Four-month-old Gabriel King McFarland was found unresponsive on April 22, 2014, by his mother after she left the baby in the care of his father at their Des Moines home.
The boy later passed away, with an autopsy showing Gabriel of an abusive head trauma, which authorities say he suffered at the hands of his dad, who was 17 at the time.
‘I never thought in my wildest dreams this would happen,’ Atkins told WHO-TV shortly after the tragedy.
She explained that, after discovering she was pregnant five months along, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to raise the little boy so decided to give him up for adoption.
But in February 2014, she visited the couple’s home and had second thoughts when she saw Rachel kiss the little boy and said ‘mommy’s here’. She passed back the baby and stormed out, she said.
Afterwards, the couple texted Atkins’ mother and said she wouldn’t be allowed to visit alone without her mother there in the future – which angered Atkins, she said.
‘It really hurt my feelings because my mom was not there when I made the baby,’ she said.
She made a list of pros and cons about taking her son back and ‘couldn’t for the life of me’ think why she would want to have him again, she said.