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Couple Wins $3.25M Lawsuit After Son is Killed by Birth Father

Photograph by Twenty20

A couple in Iowa's recent win in court uncovered a tragic adoption story for everyone involved. Rachel and Heidi McFarland won $3.25 million last week in a lawsuit filed in August 2014 against their adoption attorney, Jason Rieper, for professional negligence. After Rieper had failed to get a crucial signature, the couple lost a baby boy they thought they were adopting and had already taken home.

The gut-wrenching part: The 3-month-old was reclaimed by his birth mother and then killed by his birth father only five weeks later.

When the McFarlands first learned they were going to adopt Gabriel, everything seemed too good to be true. They told People.com they had planned to adopt a son from the teenage daughter of one of Rachel's nursing home co-workers.

“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,” Rachel told People. “We didn’t know if we could do artificial insemination, and it seemed like a route we couldn't afford. The birth mom didn’t care if we were a same-sex couple."

They were present when Gabriel was born on Dec. 28, 2013, coached Atkins through labor, cut the umbilical cord and even named him after Rachel's favorite story from the Bible.

Roxanne Conlin, who represented the McFarlands in the civil lawsuit, said in a statement on Facebook that Rieper didn't get a crucial release-of-custody document signed by the birth mother in a timely fashion. After having the baby, named Gabriel McFarland, for 78 days, the McFarlands had to give him back to the then-16-year-old birth mother, Markeya Atkins, who decided to keep the baby.

"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, four 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," Conlin wrote. "The birth mom got mad at the McFarlands and ripped this baby away from the only parents and the only home he had known. That is all the jury knew when they reached this verdict."

Conlin adds that the jury, which unanimously decided against Rieper, didn't know that the birth father killed the baby while the birth mom had gone out for concert tickets. The Des Moines Register reports that when she returned, she discovered the baby "alone, pale, wet and foaming from his mouth and nose."

Gabriel's birth father, Drew James Weehler-Smith, who is now 20 years old, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2015 and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Testimony regarding the child's death was not allowed in the civil suit against the attorney, as the lawsuit was over their adoption attorney's failure to secure signatures on documents relinquishing the custody of the baby in a timely manner.

"The jury didn't know [about the circumstances that led to Gabriel's death] and also didn't know that for every hour of every day he was not with them, Heidi and Rachel worried that he was living in a [cockroach-infested] 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," Conlin wrote on Facebook.

"Why wasn't this a child protection case? I'm confused—if the baby was deemed to be at risk, or living in a neglectful environment, why wasn't child services involved?" a commenter asked.

"We all wish we knew the answer to your question. The baby was born with narcotics in his cord blood, which meant the hospital should have reported to DHS. The baby's pediatrician [received] a call from DHS a few days after the baby died," Conlin responded.

The couple, who will forever think of Gabriel as the baby who made them mothers, learned of his death when watching the news on TV and recognized the address of Atkins' apartment. They contacted Rachel's co-worker, Gabriel's biological grandmother, who confirmed that he was the baby on the news.

Rieper’s attorney, David L. Brown, says Rieper was not negligent and had no control over Atkins’ decision.

“You can’t control the emotion of a birth mom," Brown said, "especially when they're 16 years old. “At the end, the [birth mother wasn't going to sign away custody] and the suggestion that Jason [Rieper] was to force her to do it would be unethical for him.”

For the McFarlands, this win was the validation they needed after all the heartache they've been through.

"I don't know exactly what moving forward is, but I know both Heidi and I feel a lightening. A weight has been lifted," Rachel McFarland told the Des Moines Register.

The McFarlands now have a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old daughter, one adopted and one birthed by Heidi. While winning the lawsuit can't bring back their baby, we hope it can help them heal.

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