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WHOSE DAUGHTER? <br> AN ADOPTION GONE AWRY IN NIAGARA COUNTY HAS LEFT A LITTLE GIRL IN LIMBO. IT'S A CASE OF SECOND THOUGHTS, MISBEGOTTEN DECISIONS -- AND TWO COUPLES WHO SAY THEIR ONLY MOTIVE IS LOVE

The little brown-haired girl with the sparkling laugh celebrated her first birthday last week, but no one could give her the gift she most needs: a decision on who her parents will be.

In a Family Court system where many children languish for lack of adults to love them, the problem facing this Niagara County baby is the opposite. Two sets of would-be parents have fought for her since she was 6 weeks old -- one calling her Gabriella, the other calling her Molly.

She has grown up being shuttled between the Barker home of a former sex offender and his wife, who want to adopt her, and the Newfane and Lockport homes of the people who gave her life, then gave her away.

The Barker couple -- business owners, homeowners, married for 12 years -- believe they offer the girl a more stable home. The husband's two arrests on misdemeanor sex abuse charges shouldn't disqualify them now that he has stopped drinking, they say, since it was alcohol that prompted his behavior.

The biological mother, who says she and the biological father are now certain they want to raise the child, was criticized last summer by a child protection worker for lax supervision of the infant. She promised it would never happen again.

Because the two sides could not agree, it fell to a Niagara County Family Court judge to decide who will be the girl's parents, who will guide her future -- and who will be left with nothing but snapshots.

In 1998, Jody Oliver, 25, a bartender at Time Out Sports Bar and Grill in Barker, discovered she was pregnant.

Time Out was owned by Jimmy Galeas, who had married the former Jacqueline Dewart 10 years earlier. Galeas was 35, his wife 30, and they wanted children, but were unable to have them.

Oliver hadn't planned on settling down with the biological father, a 25-year-old carpenter named Brian Bratton. They weren't even a couple anymore, though they remained friends.

In June, she thought about having an abortion. She even made an appointment at a Buffalo clinic and got into her car with a girlfriend for the trip.

"We didn't even make it out of Niagara County," the woman would later say. "I knew it wasn't the right choice to make."

She didn't tell her family. But she did tell her boss.

The bar owner and his wife wanted a child, and she wanted to give one up for adoption. At first, it seemed like the perfect answer.

Eventually, the bar owner's wife accompanied the pregnant woman to doctor's appointments for prenatal care.

The Galeases were happy to pay her doctor's bills, and Oliver continued to work at the bar.

The bar owner told the pregnant woman, more than once, that she could change her mind about giving up her baby. He would respect whatever decision she made.

She had heard that the bar owner had been in trouble for some sort of sexual charge. He assured her that it wasn't a big deal, that he had gotten counseling.

The woman hid her pregnancy from family members until Thanksgiving, when her father asked. She told them that she would be having the child, then participating in an adoption. They went along with her decision.

But as the baby grew inside her, she would later say, so did the doubts about giving her up.

Looking at the records

As a couple married more than a decade, financially stable, with their own home, Jimmy and Jacqueline Galeas had much going for them as would-be adoptive parents.

Besides, the bar owner says he has learned his lesson from his last arrest, when he stopped smoking marijuana and drinking, and underwent counseling.

"It would never happen again," he said, "because now I respect myself, and I respect others."

In fact, Jimmy Galeas has had a clean record since his 1997 arrest.

In the adoption hearing, a series of witnesses described the bar owner and his wife as caring, capable parents.

But the fact remained that Jimmy Galeas has a record.

Because Family Court is supposed to weigh factors that could harm a child before approving adoptions, sex offenders trying to adopt have their records examined closely by judges.

In his adoption filing, he reported one arrest, a 1997 case involving a 20-year-old woman at his bar. He was charged with misdemeanor sexual abuse and prohibited sales to a minor.

After the arrest, Galeas pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and attempted sexual abuse, putting his name on New York State's sex-offender registry. Nearly a year later, he succeeded in having it erased.

During the adoption proceedings, the biological father's attorney, Angelo DiMillo, confronted the bar owner with his sworn adoption petition, which said the bar owner believed "neither the court nor the Niagara County district attorney have ever considered me to be a sex offender in any sense of the word."

That statement might have been true in the strictest sense. Galeas may have believed that. But the details of Galeas' cases, contained in court documents, show he dramatically understated his record.

Actually, the 1997 arrest was his second on misdemeanor sex abuse charges, the bar owner admitted under questioning.

The first arrest was in 1996, when he was charged with fondling a 17-year-old relative in his house while his wife slept upstairs. In that case, Galeas pleaded guilty to harassment, a violation, on par with a traffic ticket. The result was, in a strict legal sense, not a criminal conviction.

There was also a third incident that led to no charge but was reported to police later. Alone in his bar with a 19-year-old woman in 1996, Galeas started unzipping her pants, and she rebuffed him. She testified on his behalf about the incident in the adoption hearings.

Most criminal proceedings bar consideration of "bad acts" other than criminal convictions. The rules are different in an adoption case.

During the adoption proceedings, the bar owner said he had left his first arrest unmentioned on his attorney's advice, because it wasn't a criminal conviction.

He argued that a prosecutor's agreeing to erase his name from the sex-offender registry helped prove he had never been considered a danger. He was drunk during all the incidents, he said. He has stopped drinking, so he's not a danger, he said.

Galeas was accused of matters involving drinking and adults, said his attorney, David Douglas.

"He's not a pedophile," Douglas said. "That's an important distinction. No one's even alleged that."

It will be up to the Family Court judge to decide what weight -- if any -- to give Galeas' record.

It certainly helped the bar owner's case that the teen-age relative he was arrested for fondling testified on his behalf.

Now a college student, she said she had forgiven him since he stopped drinking and gotten counseling. She was not afraid to be alone in the house with him, she said, and even worked at his bar.

A sense of obligation

On Jan. 27, 1999, Oliver went to Inter-Community Memorial Hospital in Newfane, ready to give birth.

The Galeases never left her side.

As she labored, the woman waiting to adopt was the only one at her bedside, besides nurses.

Even as family came to visit, the new mother gave the same answer whenever anyone asked: She was giving up the baby.

She felt obligated to her boss and his wife, she later explained. They had paid her doctor bills and a few months' rent. Even more, she knew how deeply they wanted a child, how much hope her daughter meant to them, and she did not want to hurt their feelings.

But after seeing the fruit of her labor -- her daughter -- her own feelings were becoming too strong to ignore.

Despite that, on Feb. 4, Jody Oliver and Brian Bratton answered the legally required questions about understanding what adoption meant and signed away their baby.

The Galeases chose the name for the birth certificate: Gabriella.

The others, meanwhile, were already calling her Molly.

The next day, the Galeases took the infant girl home.

The biological mother was told rules required her to carry the baby out of the door, bearing her to the car of the people who would become her parents.

Later, describing that walk, the mother wept again.

"When they pulled away," she said, her voice breaking, "the nurse actually brought me back inside, to sit me down because I was so upset."

Changes of heart

The adoption form told the biological parents they had 45 days to change their minds.

Oliver and Bratton decided they had made a mistake and wanted the little girl as their own. They thought they could revoke their permission and simply take her back.

On March 13, after the Galeases had cared for the girl for about a month, her biological parents went to the Barker home to reclaim her.

The woman who thought she finally had a daughter to call her own screamed when she heard the news. Her husband picked her up from the floor.

She stopped screaming long enough to lash out at the woman who had given her dreams flesh.

"You have no mothering instincts," was one thing she said, she recalled later.

And: "You have never shown any affection to the baby."

And: "How are you going to support her?"

The target of her anger responded that she loved them, that she never meant to hurt them.

The bar owner had previously told his pregnant employee that he would respect her decision on adoption, the bar owner's wife would agree later.

But in the month they cared for her, the beautiful little brown-haired girl had changed more than one heart.

The Galeases asked Oliver and Bratton for time to get the girl's belongings together before they turned her over.

Then they called their lawyer.

"We knew what we should do," the bar owner's wife said. "We wanted our daughter."

When adoption agreements are revoked, state law does not say the child must be automatically returned.

It calls for a "best interest" hearing, where a judge can listen to practically anything about either side before deciding who would make better parents.

Shared, for the moment

Judge John F. Batt had already set the standard of impartiality, ruling that the two sides would share custody of the girl until a decision could be made.

There are court dates scheduled into May. Brian Bratton hasn't testified yet, and an attorney representing the child will present a psychologist's analysis of who should get the child.

One thing both sides agree on: Finish the case before the girl is old enough to become confused over whom to call Mommy and Daddy.

A question of safety

In their part of the best-interest hearing, the Galeases have done their best to inform the judge of Oliver's alleged shortcomings.

They saw her smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol when she was pregnant, they said. She was asked whether her job, training horses at a Newfane farm, paid enough to support a child.

She apparently drove for months with a suspended driver's license, even though the girl was frequently in her vehicle. The biological mother responded that she did not know her license had been suspended and has not driven since it was questioned.

During the summer, the would-be adoptive parents hired a private investigator to follow the biological mother with a video camera, to provide graphic evidence for the best-interest hearing.

As a result of the surveillance, the court was presented two county child protective services reports of "inadequate guardianship" and "lack of supervision."

In August, the private investigator followed the biological mother to the horse barn where she worked. She left the baby, strapped in her car seat, in the cab of her pickup truck while she was in the barn.

Based on the private investigator's statements and videotape the detective recorded, Niagara County child protection authorities opened a case. The allegation, based on the bar owner's detective, was that the baby had repeatedly been left unattended for 50 minutes or more.

The biological mother confirmed that the baby had been left in her car seat, with the window of the truck open, but said it was never for more than a few minutes. While working, she frequently went to the open door to check on the sleeping baby, though the detective probably could not have seen her from his surveillance location.

"When Social Services expressed concerns about this, (she) readily agreed to refrain from this practice," said Rick Updegrove, her attorney. "She arranged to leave her daughter with the baby's grandmother while performing these chores."

Finding the report of the Galeases' investigator at least partly credible, the social worker labeled the reports "indicated." That meant the social worker found some evidence to support the allegations, even though she wasn't sure how long the biological mother was away from the baby's side.

In the end, the social worker left the girl with her biological mother, and under the "safety assessment" section, wrote: "Safe."

'I want my daughter'

On Jan. 20, a week short of the little girl's first birthday, the biological mother was finally asked to explain her change of heart.

"It's something you can't describe, that feeling of having a baby," she said slowly. "You have to give birth to understand."

She felt confusion building during and after the pregnancy, she said, as her second thoughts about the adoption clashed with the obvious joy of the people she had promised to make parents.

"I almost felt I was intruding" in her own hospital room when the prospective adoptive mother cuddled the infant, she said. "I never had any time alone with her in the hospital."

Not wanting to shatter their hopes, she signed the adoption paper, she said.

"I didn't want to hurt them," she repeated. "I'm still concerned about their feelings."

After she had to carry the girl she had borne out the door of Inter-Community Memorial Hospital and put her into the car -- into the lives -- of others, her internal battle ended.

"I knew I had to do something to get her back."

In the end, she said, it had nothing to do with who the prospective adoptive parents were.

"I regret putting everyone through this," she said, gesturing at the courtroom before her, full of attorneys and witnesses and court staff. "I regret it every day.

"But -- " She paused, wiping her eyes again. "I want my daughter."

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