An Iowa couple was awarded $3.25 million in a malpractice lawsuit after the baby they were trying to adopt was reclaimed by his birth parents and killed five weeks later.
A judge proclaimed that Rachel and Heidi McFarland's lawyer, Jason Rieper, acted negligently when he failed to get the child's birth parents to sign over custody, People reports.
In December 2013, the McFarlands planned to adopt the son of Rachel's coworker's daughter, Markeya Atkins. Rachel and her partner, Heidi, were present at birth and named the baby boy Gabriel.
"Adoption wasn’t ever our No. 1 choice, but because it was private it seemed tailor-made for us and we thought this could be our chance to become parents," said Rachel. "We didn’t know if we could do artificial insemination, and it seemed like a route we could afford. The birth mom didn’t care if we were a same-sex couple. It just seemed too good to be true -- and it was too good to be true."
A few months later, Atkins decided to reclaim the child. Because neither biological parent signed over custody rights, the McFarlands could do nothing but comply.
"[Our lawyer] said there is nothing left for us to do: She wants him back and you have to give him back," Rachel said. "It was horrible. There are no words. We had him for 78 days. We loved him from the first idea. We cut his little mohawk off. All we have left of him is his hair, and little did we know that would be all we had left of him."
Only five weeks later, Rachel and Heidi were watching the local news when they saw that a baby was killed at the same address as Gabriel's birth parents.
The McFarlands confirmed that the baby was indeed Gabriel, who died of head trauma when left alone with his biological father, Drew James Weehler-Smith. Weehler-Smith later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
"He was just a sweet baby," Rachel recalled of Gabriel. "He smelled good. He loved music. Our cats loved him and our dogs loved him. He was just a sweet and beautiful baby boy. He was learning how to smile when we gave him up."
The baby's death prompted the McFarlands to sue their former lawyer for failing to ensure that Gabriel would be legally theirs and still alive today.
"Their attorney didnt get the basic document signed by the birth mother in a timely fashion," wrote the couple's new lawyer, Raxanne Conlin, in a Facebook post. "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."
"The lawyer just didn't get around to it."
Rieper plans on appealing the decision and maintains that he was not responsible for the birth mother's decision to reclaim the child.
“I don’t believe he did anything inappropriate at all," Rieper's attorney, David L. Brown, told People, "and I think if he forced the issue and forced [Atkins] to sign away her rights, I think someone could make a case that it was inappropriate."
The McFarlands, however, believe that justice has been served.
"Obviously our child and us weren’t a priority to [Rieper]," said Rachel. "We are just happy he was found negligent. That was what our goal was. We will not see any money from this."