A Faulkner County Circuit Court erred when it allowed an Arkansas man to adopt his stepdaughter without the consent of her birth father, who had been out of touch for nearly two years while under a restraining order, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In an 6-1 decision, the high court reversed and dismissed the Circuit Court's finding that Antonio Martini failed to give a proper reason for failing to communicate with his children. Their mother, Retina Price, left the couple's Washington state home in December 2009 after a domestic abuse allegation to which Martini later pleaded guilty. She and her two children moved to Arkansas.
One of Price's children, a daughter, was fathered by Martini. Martini was not the father of Price's other child, a boy.
Martini challenged the adoption of both children by his ex-wife's new husband, Christopher Price, in 2014, because Martini had never consented to the adoption.
Christopher Price argued that he didn't need consent under Arkansas' adoption statutes because Martini had failed to give good reason for not contacting the children for more than a year.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a portion of the lower court decision that Price did not need Martini's consent to adopt the boy but reversed the court's decision to grant an adoption petition for Price's daughter.
The majority of the court found that Martini's attempts to contact the children -- by email and through Skype -- were hampered by a restraining order put in place by his ex-wife, until they divorced in 2012. The restraining order did not apply to the children, but Martini argued that fear of violating the order made it nearly impossible to locate the children.
"The obstacles to [Martini's] communication with the children prior to March 2012 were precipitated by a domestic disturbance, but obstacles they remained," wrote Justice Robin Wynne in the majority opinion.
The high court's decision has started a new effort to reunite father and daughter, according to Martini's lawyer, James Tripcony.
Retina Price was granted custody of the children when she divorced Martini in 2012. The divorce allowed for Martini to have supervised visits with the children, according to court records. The divorce court ruled that Martini had acted as a father to the son, even though he never adopted the boy.
Martini met with both children five times in 2012 and 2013, before a therapist recommended the visits stop because of "threatening and intimidating" behavior by Martini, according to Justice Courtney Goodson's dissenting opinion.
Tripcony said he rejected the therapist's conclusion and has been trying to reach out to the Prices' attorney to allow Martini to contact his daughter over the holidays. They've responded with a request to wait until after the holidays, Tripcony said.
"As it's been for years, we don't know where the child is," Tripcony said. "This is a good father and he has done everything he can to re-establish that relationship, and the Supreme Court recognized that."
The Prices' attorney could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In her dissenting opinion, Goodson criticized the majority for accepting Martini's argument that he couldn't contact the children without violating his restraining order.
"The message sent by this [majority] opinion is beyond disappointing," Goodson wrote. "Antonio is not a blameless victim. He was not without recourse to initiate contact with the children."
Metro on 12/23/2016