Janesville father fights to keep daughter
When John met Sheri in 2002, she came with 3-year-old Leah.
At 33, John was ready to find the right woman and settle down. Sheri was smart and funny, intelligent and caring—“just such a sweetheart,” he said.
John, now 40, remembers meeting Leah several months after he and her mother started dating.
Right away, there was a connection. They put a caterpillar in a jar and later watched it hatch into a butterfly.
“She was so young, and she just wanted someone to play fun stuff with,” John said. “I was kind of a kid (myself) at the time, so I was fun.”
When John and Sheri married June 18, 2004, Leah was the flower girl.
Leah called John “Papa” or “Papacito.”
“We did everything together as a family,” John said. “We were essentially a family with no distractions except maybe once a month.”
The distractions were the infrequent visits Leah made to her biological dad in northern Wisconsin. Leah never wanted to go because the trips took her away from the “fun” stuff at home: the large, tightly knit, Foster clan; her friends; and her sports.
Sheri’s first marriage had not been good, and she left her husband, Shawn, shortly after Leah was born. After the divorce, he moved four hours away.
Sheri once asked Shawn if John could adopt Leah.
“It was to the point I was her dad, and her dad was somebody she saw on occasion,” John said. “Teaching her to ride her bike the first time, I did that. The daily stuff—what dads and little girls do—I did that.”
Shawn would not agree to the adoption.
In late 2005, Sheri had surgery for endometriosis, a condition that causes pelvic pain. John still breaks down when he remembers the doctor coming into the waiting room, telling him that his young wife had late Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Sheri was 35. Leah was 9.
Sheri fought the disease with an optimistic determination.
But she fretted about what might happen to Leah if something happened to her.
Before every surgery, she made John and her parents promise that they would fight to keep Leah.
“She did not want her going with her dad,” John said. “We weren’t going to let her down.”
A week before Sheri died—when she was terribly ill—her ex-husband visited.
After the visit, he went to Leah’s school and requested that the girl’s transcripts and records be transferred to his hometown.
As Sheri lay dying, John called family friend and attorney Jack Hoag.
John buried Sheri on Dec. 13, 2008. On Dec. 22, John was in court, fighting to keep what remained of his family together.
Hoag told John from the outset that his chances weren’t good. Courts always decide in favor of biological parents unless the biological parents are proved unfit. The best scenario they could hope for would be John getting visitation rights, possibly every other weekend.
Another man might have given up.
John was young and could have started a new life, unencumbered with the care of a young girl.
The thought never entered his mind.
“I raised her since she was 3,” John said.
“She was my daughter. She wasn’t his daughter. So that wasn’t even an option.
“Plus, we had promised Sheri. There was no way I was going to do anything but fight.”
John retained temporary guardianship, but the court ordered regular weekend visitation for Leah up north. John met Leah’s dad half way and handed her over.
John would hug her tightly and drive home in an empty car.
Hearing about the little things broke John’s heart.
“When she’d have to go to bed, they’d just tell her to go to bed,” he said. “When we go to bed, I tuck her in, and we say our prayers. None of that was done.”
Legal fees mounted.
Slowly, things turned John’s way. Shawn’s own family supported John, and Shawn’s mother testified in John’s favor at a deposition.
“She always wanted what was best for Leah,” John said.
Shortly before the case went to trial in summer 2009, Shawn forfeited his rights. The court entered a finding that he was unfit and awarded John guardianship.
Shawn would have Leah every other weekend and split holidays with John. It was the best they could do, Hoag said. The lawyer was betting that Shawn would lose interest in Leah, and Leah soon would be of the age when she had a say about her future.
The arrangement didn’t last long.
Leah’s biological dad was diagnosed with a rare form of throat cancer. He died within six months.
John adopted Leah immediately.
“She wanted me to, and I wanted me to, and Sheri wanted me to,” he said.
Hoag remembers choking up at the adoption hearing. He was surprised at the emotion because he has been an attorney for so long.
Leah, after all, could be in foster care. Instead, she’s in a loving home and family.
“It was a pilgrimage,” Hoag said.
“He is her father,” Hoag said of John. “He does all the things a father should do and more, and he’s done those things since Day One. I don’t really think he looks at it any other way.”
Leah was sad when her dad died—she worried that John would get cancer, too—but nowadays, when they talk about her parents, it is about her mom.
John had a good-paying job selling medical equipment, but it required travel and kept him away from Leah. Now, he has a new job as an independent insurance agent.
Leah writes John letters on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Today, they are likely celebrating Father’s Day with his large family.
John is proud of his daughter. She’s a good kid with a great sense of humor and a dash of sarcasm similar to his own. She gets straight A’s, she is athletic and she’s a little goofy. She’s emotionally strong.
“She helps me through a lot,” John said.
“We help each other through a lot.”