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Society

Couple Given $3.25M For Lawyer's Role In Son's Death (Photos)

| by Selena Darlim

Rachel and Heidi McFarland thought it was "too good to be true" when they watched their adopted son come into the world on Dec. 28, 2013. When the child's biological parents requested custody of the child just 78 days after his birth, they realized that it had been.

The McFarlands had arranged to adopt the baby from the daughter of one of Rachel's co-workers in 2013, People reports. Though adoption was not their first choice, the couple stated that they could not afford artificial insemination.

"Because it was private, it seemed tailor-made for us and we thought this could be our chance to become parents," Rachel said.  

Rachel told People that the birth mother, Markeya Atkins, was fine with the fact that she and Heidi are a same-sex couple. The two were present at the birth of the child.

"We coached [Atkins] through labor," said Rachel. "I cut the umbilical cord. He was in our arms and care the second he was born. We both wanted a boy and both wanted to name him Gabriel. It is a strong name. It is my favorite story from the Bible."
 

The couple's adoption attorney Jason Rieper told them that the birth mother had signed a release-of-custody document, granting them full guardianship of Gabriel, according to The Des Moines Register.

On March 3, 2014, Rieper notified the couple that Atkins wanted her son back. Gabriel was given to her biological parents 10 days later, People reports.  

"[Rieper] said there is nothing left for us to do," Rachel told People. "She wants him back and you have to give him back."

She added that they had cut off a piece of Gabriel's hair to have something left of him.

Five weeks later on April 22, 2014, Atkins found Gabriel "alone, pale, wet and foaming from his mouth and nose" after being left with the 17-year-old father, Drew James Weehler-Smith, The Des Moines Register reports.

The baby was shaken to death, The Independent reports.

Police charged Weehler-Smith with the child's murder. In January 2015, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 50-year prison sentence, according to People.

The McFarlands learned of the baby's death in late April 2014 after seeing a report on their local news:

It didn’t say his name, but we had received a bill from the guardian ad litem and it had the address on it. It was this normal report that a baby was found dead at such-and-such address. Heidi was screaming, and I looked at the paperwork and it was the address. I texted [Atkin’s mother] and she confirmed it was him.

The McFarlands filed a civil lawsuit against Rieper in Aug. 2014 for failing to tell them that he did not obtain Atkin's release-of-custody signature from either birth parent, which led to events culminating in the boy's death. The trial was strictly concerning Rieper's actions and did not focus on the details of the boy's murder.

The jury unanimously ruled on Aug. 16, 2017 that Rieper owes the McFarlands $3.25 million dollars due to the emotional distress his negligence caused them, The Des Moines Register reports.

Rieper's attorney, David L. Brown, told People that his client "isn't responsible for this homicide" and that he did not agree with the decision.

"You can’t control the emotion of a birth mom, and you can’t control the emotions of a 16 year-old birth mom," Brown said. "At the end, [Atkins] wasn’t going to do it and the suggestion that [Rieper] was to force her to do it would be unethical for him."

Though they say nothing can bring their son back, the McFarlands told The Des Moines Register in an interview that "a weight has been lifted."

"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," said the McFarland's lawyer, Roxanne Conlin, in a statement after the Aug. 16, 2017 verdict.

The McFarlands have two daughters now: London McFarland, 3, and Vienna McFarland, 2. Heidi gave birth to the younger child. They consider Gabriel the child that "made" them mothers and frequently tell their daughters about him.

Sources: People, The Des Moines Register, The Independent / Featured Image: Pixabay / Embedded Images: Rachel McFarland via People

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