Skylar is a rambunctious toddler who runs and plays and giggles with her father, Chris Emanuel.
But she has no idea she sat at the heart of a massive custody battle with far-reaching implications for fathers' rights.
Emanuel, a 25-year-old from Aiken, South Carolina, met Skylar’s mother, whom he now refers to as simply “the egg donor,” through their work as fork lift drivers at a manufacturing company three years ago. He said they started off as friends before it escalated into something more.
“She wasn’t the ordinary girly girl. She was a girly girl but she could play pool. I could sit down and play pool with her,” he said. “She listened to the same music that I listened to but she rode horses. You know, it was different. I never met someone of that nature before but I definitely enjoyed the moments that we shared.”
In the beginning, Emanuel said they texted all the time, and their affectionate messages soon turned into flirtations. Three months later, Emanuel was overjoyed to learn he was going to be a dad.
“I was happy, who wouldn’t be happy?” Emanuel said. “It was my first child and at the time, you know, I’m going to be there. We’re going to do everything we got to do.”
Emanuel said he and Skylar’s mother talked about getting married. Throughout the mother’s pregnancy, Emanuel said he was a deeply involved expectant father.
“It was in my heart that despite anything, I’m going to be there…I’m going to do what I got to do,” he said.
After a long-awaited meeting between both of their families, Emanuel said he knew in no uncertain terms that her parents were dead set against him and even accused the family of racism.
“Like hearing racism but actually feeling it, it totally different. It’s like being punched in the stomach,” he said. “The crazy thing about it was when we left she reassured me that we would continue to raise our child together.”
The woman’s mother said Emanuel is a “liar” and that she disapproved of their relationship, not because of the color of his skin, but because he didn’t have a job.
Emanuel said he and his girlfriend continued to be in contact, talking and texting frequently. Texts often ended with a “mwwuah” kiss. But Emanuel said his girlfriend started to avoid meeting in person and asked him to skip doctor’s appointments.
“She was saying her mom was coming and I didn’t need to come,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Dang, why can’t I come to the doctor’s appointment?’ If I can’t come to the doctor’s appointment, I can’t even think about being there to witness my child’s birth.”
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Six months before Skylar’s birth, Emanuel’s half-sister, Chelsea McKnabb, and her best friend, Jill Thomason, were more than worried. They feared the woman would give the baby away.
“I said, I don’t think ‘the egg donor’ is keeping the baby, and he was like, ‘No, she is. We’re going to get married. We’re going to move in together,’” Thomason said. “They had plans and I was like, ok, but I still went home and started researching, started looking up fathers' rights in South Carolina.”
Thomason discovered that South Carolina is one of at least 25 states that have what’s called a “responsible father registry” where unwed fathers can sign up to be notified if their child is put up for adoption, and urged Emanuel to look into it. Thirty-thousand children were born out of wedlock in South Carolina according to the 2014 census, yet less than 300 men signed up for the registry.
But at the time, Emanuel said he didn’t think signing up was necessary. To him, it seemed like a lack of trust for Skylar’s mother. Instead, he and his family focused on organizing a family baby shower. But when Skylar’s mother never showed up, Emanuel got nervous and signed up for the registry.
A few days later, a messenger showed up at Emanuel’s house to hand him papers showing that his daughter Skylar had been born over a week earlier, that she had been given up for adoption and had already been placed with an adoptive family in another state.
Emanuel said he refused to give up his parental rights and immediately confronted his girlfriend through a text message, and she admitted to the deception.
“You misled me! You played me! You lied to me! Numerous times!” Emanuel wrote in a text message to Skylar’s mother.
“I can’t take back what I’ve done,” Skylar’s mother wrote in a text message to Emanuel.
Emanuel immediately contested the adoption and hired attorneys Kimaki Nichols-Graham and Jennifer Mook.
“My daughter was stolen from me,” Emanuel said. “I asserted my rights. My rights were stripped of me. But not only that, now I’ve got to prove myself for my daughter.
Skylar’s mixed race is what gave Skylar’s mother the loophole to put her up for adoption out of state. An old South Carolina law only allows “difficult to adopt” children -- children who are age 6 or older, have physical, mental or emotional disabilities, or are mixed race -- to be sent across state lines.
The couple who adopted Skylar were lied to as well and were told the baby’s father was out of the picture. They continued to care for and bond with Skylar over the course of several months and sent Emanuel a heartfelt email, describing it as “a last plea from desperate adoptive parents who love Skylar with all of our hearts” and assured him that if he stopped fighting for custody, Skylar would “go to the best schools.”
But Emanuel refused to back down.
“No one can love my daughter the way I can,” he said. “It don’t matter what type of title you have, that’s my daughter. You can’t take my daughter, give me my daughter, that’s all that mattered.”
Although Skylar’s mother declined to speak to ABC News, in a letter to the court she said she felt that Emanuel “could not provide for them,” and she thought Skylar would be better off with the adoptive parents who were raising her in a “loving, devoted and stable home.”
But Emanuel had pages and pages of text messages that he said prove he was an engaged and devoted dad-to-be and that his then-girlfriend deliberately lied to him about his daughter’s birth. After a three-month legal battle, the court granted custody of Skylar to Emanuel.
“All I could do was break down on my knees, and I cried and I thanked God for bringing my daughter home because all I needed was for her to get in my arms,” Emanuel said.
His attorney Jennifer Mook said that often in cases of adoption, father’s rights can be trampled, which is why Emanuel went public with his story, talking to media outlets like The Atlantic.
“If he hadn’t registered, he might have never known that his child was placed up for adoption because that registry gave him notice that his daughter was going to or attempting to be adopted,” Mook said. “In my opinion, the biological family should be the first choice to raise children if they are fit and willing, and in Chris’ case, they were fit and willing.”
Two weeks after the judge granted Emanuel custody, the adoptive parents reluctantly brought back baby Skylar to South Carolina.
“I felt her breath for the first time, seeing her eyes, seeing her touch. It was like, I lost a part of me, I was lost, I was so lost and I felt complete. I felt whole again,” he said. “Having my daughter for the first time where she’s supposed to be. It’s a moment that is irreplaceable.”