Surrogacy case delivers fight over custody
Rene Stutzman, Sentinel Staff Writer
September 16, 2007
Tom and Gwyn Lamitina of Oviedo wanted a baby.
They found a Jacksonville schoolteacher willing to bear a child for them and struck a deal. But before the baby was born, they had a falling out, and the mother refused to give up the child.
Today, 4-month-old Emma lives with her mother, but the Lamitinas are fighting to take her away. A Jacksonville judge is expected to decide in the next few days where the baby will live.
It is a heart-wrenching tale with a tough issue at its core: Who gets a baby conceived by two strangers when their deal falls apart before the child is born?
The mother, Stephanie Eckard, 30, decided long before the child was born that the baby would stay with her, according to her attorney, Kelly B. Hampton. As the biological mother -- the child was born from her egg -- that's her legal right, he said.
But Tom Lamitina, 45, a roofer, says the baby is his daughter, too. She would be better off living with him, his wife and their 21/2year-old son in Oviedo, he says.
So, he's spent $30,000 in the past several months on lawyers, hoping to bring home a baby girl he has yet to meet.
Surrogacy on rise
There are no statistics on how many surrogate mothers give birth in Florida each year, according to attorneys who specialize in the field. One of Florida's busiest, Charlotte Danciu of Delray Beach, said she has handled "several hundred" in the past three years.
Lawyers call Eckard's case a "traditional surrogacy," in which the woman who bears the child provides her own egg. Danciu said three-fourths of her cases, however, involve doctors implanting the fertilized egg of the intended mother into the womb of the surrogate.
For the Lamitinas and Eckard, there were no doctors and no lawyers -- at least no lawyers until it was too late.
Neither Tom Lamitina nor Stephanie Eckard is new to surrogate childbirthing. Lamitina's first child was born to a surrogate mother. That transaction, he said, went smoothly.
Woman found on Web
When he and his wife, Gwyn, 46, decided to have a second child, they turned to the same Internet Web site where they had found their first surrogate mother.
That's where they met Eckard, a divorced mother with two children who has given birth to two other children for couples, according to her lawyer.
Lamitina and Eckard made contact in April or May 2006. A few days later, Tom Lamitina had a face-to-face meeting with her, and they agreed to the deal, he said.
On May 15, Tom Lamitina traveled to Eckard's home in Jacksonville for their first attempt at home insemination, according to the couple. They went to separate rooms. He provided the sperm. Then in private, she used a syringe to complete the procedure.
After four to six attempts, Eckard became pregnant. She sent news to Tom Lamitina with balloons and a card of congratulations.
Never signed a contract
She also asked him to sign a contract, one based on a boilerplate for surrogate mothers that she found on the Internet. It required him to pay her$1,500 a month until the baby was born, he said.
He signed it. She never did, according to her attorney.
Their unstructured approach to nailing down parental rights was a big mistake, said Patricia Strowbridge, an Orlando adoption attorney who also handles as many as two dozen surrogacy cases a year.
"There's almost a limitless ability for people to get themselves into a legal quagmire," she said. "When people start dealing with creating children in their own sort of creative ways, they're going to wind up with huge legal problems because parental rights are very difficult to assess in this situation."
She said Eckard has the stronger case.
Smoking leads to breakup
The relationship between the Lamitinas and Eckard began to come apart about two months after Eckard got pregnant. In mid-October, Eckard and her family visited SeaWorld and stayed overnight with the Lamitinas, according to the couple.
While she was there, Gwyn Lamitina caught Eckard smoking a cigarette, something outlawed by the contract, she said.
After a series of discussions that turned increasingly hostile, the Lamitinas cut off their monthly payments to Eckard, saying they would pay only after the baby was born, they said.
Tom Lamitina accused Eckard of switching his sperm with someone else's.
That's about the time Eckard hired an attorney, insisted on DNA testing and pressed Tom Lamitina to renegotiate their contract, Tom Lamitina said.
The DNA tests proved the baby was his, but there was no new contract.
Lawsuit follows birth
Baby Emma was born May 9. Two weeks later, Eckard sued Lamitina, asking for custody and child-support payments.
"We're asking for sole custody," said Hampton, her attorney.
"We don't even want him to have any kind of visitation."
Tom Lamitina is bitter about the whole thing.
"I just felt that I was robbed," he said.
Circuit Judge W. Gregg McCaulie in Jacksonville could rule on where BabyEmma should live as early as this week.
Rene Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-324-7294.
Copyright © 2007, Orlando Sentinel
Monday, September 17, 2007
Orlanda Surrogacy and the Fight For Custody
This case represents the importance of having a legal contract in place prior to the medical procedure taking place, especially crucial in a traditional surrogacy case where the carrier is genetically linked to the child she gives birth to. When I am consulting with clients seeking a traditional surrogate, a woman who donates her eggs, as well as carries the child for the couple, I advise them of how critical it is to have the legal contract in place prior to the start of any insemination, whether at home or adminstered by a liscensed physician. In fact, after our consult, most couples feel traditional surrogacy is not worth the risk, and they choose to work with a separate egg donor and gestational carrier.