Biological mother makes mission of contesting adoption after 31 years

A mother says her baby was stolen three decades ago, but is it too late to do anything about it?
Published January 3 2013

Joy Hunley crossed her arms and stood still. She watched her attorney walk up to the clerk in the courthouse in Clearwater to ask for the adoption records a judge finally had said she could see. She breathed in. She breathed out.

Something happened in July of 1981. It triggered a process at the end of which Joy no longer had custody of her toddler daughter. For more than a quarter century, she convinced herself she had made an awful mistake, had signed something she shouldn't have signed. Over the last few years, though, she had learned new information. She believed she had been the victim of a fraud.

This was last year, the afternoon of June 26, just before 5. Her attorney brought the records into a small side room and put the papers on the table.

Somewhere on the consent form in front of her, Joy thought, was going to be the truth — proof of an incomprehensible crime. The other possibility was terrible, too, in its own way — that she had signed it, and had spent more than half her life telling a lie.

Victim or liar? Wronged or deluded?

She took another breath.

She looked at the consent.

The babysitter stole my child. That's how Joy starts her story.

Melissa Ann Fernandes was born at St. Petersburg's Bayfront hospital on Aug. 7, 1979. A man named Perley "Butch" Fernandes signed the birth certificate as the father. Joy first took her daughter to Linda Wollam of Pinellas Park for day care in May 1981.

Two months later, Joy, 20 at the time, decided to go to New Jersey on a trip with a friend. She took her older son with her; Linda said she'd watch Melissa. Before she left, Linda had Joy sign a medical power of attorney, just in case Melissa got sick while Joy was out of town. "I trusted her," Joy would say years later. Joy went to an attorney on Ninth Street in St. Petersburg and signed two different copies. Melissa was 23 months old.

A week and a half later, maybe two, she came back from New Jersey and knocked on Linda's door. The door opened a crack. You gave her to me, Joy says Linda told her before shutting the door.

Joy went to the Pinellas Park police. The police talked to Linda. They told Joy it was a civil matter. Butch's parents hired them an attorney.

It's important to understand something here about Joy: She had been a gangly, red-haired, gap-toothed 14-year-old when her father, an alcoholic preacher, abandoned the family. She dropped out of high school. She ran away from home. She had her first child at 17. She had Melissa at 18. And she had her third during what became a fight in court to keep her second.

The case took about a year and a half. She married Butch because her attorney said it would look better. A subsequent paternity test showed Butch wasn't Melissa's father and therefore had no legal right to help Joy fight. In the end, alone, Joy gave up. Her attorney told her to do that or else risk losing her other two children. If I can't have her, she says she said in court, then I want the Wollams to have her. This is what Joy says.

Linda? She says Joy begged her for months to take Melissa. She says Joy went to New Jersey for months, not weeks, and there was some question whether she was even coming back. She came over to Linda's house to drop Melissa off, she left the few things she had for Melissa, drank a glass of iced tea and left without kissing her daughter goodbye. The cracked door? Linda says it never happened.

Melissa grew up. Linda raised her. Joy and Butch divorced. Joy didn't always raise her sons, older Johnathan and younger Jeremy, who lived for stretches with Butch because Joy was too distraught, too distracted or both. She waited tables. She delivered pizza. She wrote bad checks. She often drove by Linda's house to try to get a glimpse of the daughter she lost, and on birthdays and holidays, she cried. She finished high school and earned her diploma. She started working for the pest control company Terminix. She's in sales. She married Larry Hunley in 2000. She helped raise his son who is now in college. Joy now is probably more stable than she's ever been. Larry loves Joy. He taught her to speak up for herself. She told him the same story she told everyone.

But even he was skeptical at first.

Two key things happened in 2008.

The first thing that happened is Joy ran into Melissa at a Publix in St. Petersburg. They had last seen each other more than a decade before when Melissa, then 17, came to the St. Petersburg Pizza Hut where Joy worked. Melissa wanted to know why Joy had given her up. Joy left in tears. Melissa was 29 that afternoon in Publix. She was pushing her two children in the cart. Joy approached. Are those my grandkids? she asked. No, Melissa said, confused at first, not recognizing Joy. They're hers, she said — pointing to Linda. But Melissa gave Joy her phone number. Three days later, they met at the Cheesecake Factory in Tampa.

Within weeks, Melissa and her son, who was 3, and a daughter, who was 5, started visiting with Joy and Larry. They spent Thanksgiving and Christmas together. Melissa introduced Joy as her biological mother. This reunification started well and ended not so well. They bickered, about how Melissa was raising her children, about how much time Melissa spent with Linda. Counseling didn't work.

Before they stopped seeing each other, though, a more important thing happened. Linda got divorced.

It was one of the reasons Melissa was open to the idea of a relationship with Joy. She was shaken that Jeff Wollam, her adoptive father, very quickly married a woman named Eileen Reid — Linda's best friend of more than 30 years, Melissa's godmother, "Aunt Eileen." Linda moved out. Eileen moved in. And in October, behind the washing machine, Eileen found a big manila envelope, filled with old adoption records.

She wrote Joy a letter dated Oct. 31, but Joy didn't receive it for months.

"It has been a long time," the letter said, "and many, many questions, I'm sure both on your part, and my part. If I helped take a child from you it was only from misrepresentation, misinformation, lies, immoral, evil decisions on Linda's part. I ask God to forgive me for not seeing it. I ask you the same. … I wish the best for you, and if you'd ever like to talk …"

Joy wanted to talk.

In the thick stack of papers, Joy saw an incomplete but still revealing chronology of the court case, a not always flattering portrait of who she'd been at a different time in her life. She saw as well a couple of things that made her suspicious.

By March 5, 1982, seven or so months after the trip to New Jersey, Joy and Butch had filed three motions contesting the adoption — proof she hadn't just given up.

In April, Linda's attorney cited Joy's "pattern of promiscuity" and argued Linda and Jeff should have "exclusive custody and control" because moving Melissa again "would cause irreparable confusion and insecurity and perhaps severe emotional scarring."

In May, Linda called the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and said Joy was calling and harassing her, at one point telling her "that Melissa was her child and there was no judge, no cop, no lawyer that were going to keep her from getting her girl back." The Sheriff's Office told Linda "to keep her daughter close to her at all times."

In July, a state caseworker described Linda and Jeff as "stable and compatible" with "socially acceptable moral values." Melissa, the caseworker wrote, no longer recognized Joy or Butch. "She is with the only parents she really knows," the caseworker wrote.

By the end of the summer, even Joy's attorney counseled her to drop the case. On Aug. 31, the judge wrote: "The court having examined Joy Fernandes under oath finds that she has no objection to the adoption of her minor daughter." On Oct. 6 Melissa Ann Fernandes became Melissa Kay Wollam.

Twelve days later, using a different attorney, Joy filed a last-ditch motion for rehearing that described her signature on the consent as a "forgery." "Not necessary," the judge said.

But in the papers from Eileen, Joy also found something suspicious: a request for the release of Joy's medical records to Linda, dated July 6, 1981 — before the medical power of attorney, before the trip to New Jersey. The signature didn't look quite like Joy's.

Even more suspicious: Here, too, were both original copies of the medical power of attorney she remembered signing. But she noticed that one of her signatures was markedly darker. It looked like it had been traced.

Eileen told Joy what she knew about that. Later, she told Joy's attorney — under oath.

"When Linda wanted to adopt Melissa, Linda had me convinced, as well as everyone else, that Joy was abusing Melissa, and that was the reason she wanted to adopt her. I know that she had an attorney. I knew there was a battle going on about adoption. But I also knew that she called me one day — gleefully is the best way to describe it — that she had taken a black Magic Marker and darkened Joy's signature on an adoption paper."

"So she told you at that time that she was tracing Joy's signature for an adoption paper?" the attorney asked.

"Yes," Eileen said.

"Linda told me, 'I had Joy sign a paper that says that I can get medical attention for Melissa, so that I can have her signature.' "

"Did she tell you why she wanted her signature?" the attorney asked.

"The answer was always the same," Eileen said. "For the adoption."

Can this story be trusted? Can Eileen? She was best friends with Linda. They are now archenemies. Linda calls Eileen a "super crazy witch." But if Eileen is lying, it's perjury, which is a felony.

"What I said was the facts," she said later. "All of that is true."

IN JUNE 2011 Joy hired another attorney. Martha-Irene Weed of Tampa is a longtime adoption specialist. Joy wanted her to unseal all of Melissa's adoption records.

"Joy is one of the unfortunate people who signed paperwork she didn't understand in a situation in which she felt powerless," Weed said in her office. "Not educated, scared, has children to protect, doesn't have somebody saying, 'Okay, here are your rights.'

"What we're trying to do, is get the adoption records unsealed so Joy can be vindicated basically."

A judge was willing to listen. A hearing was scheduled for April 19, 2012.

"She needs to have some closure and some answers," Weed told the judge in the hearing. "And my purpose in being here is to give her those answers so that she can go forward with her life."

Linda and Melissa were piped in by speaker phone. They had moved, from Pinellas County to Hillsborough County, then all the way to Michigan — to get away from Joy.

"This was settled 30 years ago in the courts," Linda said.

Melissa then brought up a police report from July 1981. In this report, Melissa told the judge, Joy "stated her daughter had already been put up for adoption and was placed with her new family." Weed objected. She said this wasn't an evidentiary hearing. The judge agreed.

But let's pause right here. The report is on file at the Pinellas Park Police Department. It's dated July 14, the same day Joy signed the medical powers of attorney, the same day she says she left for New Jersey. Joy is listed as the victim of domestic violence. Butch is listed as the suspect.

Here's what the officer wrote: "Victim advised writer that she is in the process of putting her daughter up for adoption and has already awarded legal custody to another couple. When the suspect heard of this, he became extremely upset due to the fact the couple are not married and it has not been determined that he is the father." He added: "Writer could barely detect red marks on the victim's throat. No other bruises were present or visible."

Butch was not arrested. Joy says she doesn't remember this. Butch says the same. Both of them would have compelling reasons for such amnesia. Joy is saying she's giving up Melissa. Butch was being accused of attacking Joy. It also should be noted, though, that Butch is described as 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds with brown eyes and brown hair. He has brown hair. But he is 6 feet and has blue eyes, and says he weighed more like 175 pounds.

None of this mattered to the judge. He asked Linda and Melissa if they had anything else to add.

"Just," Linda said, "this adoption took place over 30 years ago, through the court, in the court."

"Clearly," the judge responded, "the assertion that it was over might have been a little premature given the fact that we're all here 30 years later."

The judge made his decision a month and a half later.

Joy started to read his ruling. Florida law has traditionally preferred privacy and finality in adoptions, it said. Her request to open the file: DENIED.

Joy started to cry. Only then did she look at the qualifier: other than the final judgment of adoption and Mrs. Hunley's consent. She could see those two documents. They were waiting in the courthouse in Clearwater.

Joy and Larry believed they knew what they were going to see.

They believed Linda had traced that signature on the power of attorney because that's what Eileen had said under oath. They believed that signature for Joy A. Burton on the power of attorney was going to match exactly the signature for Joy A. Burton on the consent.

They had brought to the courthouse a copy of the traced signature on a sheet of transparent plastic. When Weed, their attorney, put the records on the table, they placed that plastic on top of the paper consent, lining up the signatures, expectant.

The consent, just one page, was dated July 9, 1981, five days before Joy signed the medical power of attorney, a document on which she was identified as "the natural mother and legal custodian."

The two witnesses to the signature on the consent — in Joy's mind, accomplices to a crime — were Mary Halpin, an attorney in the office where Joy also signed the medical power of attorney, and Jessica A. Davis, the secretary and notary there. They both had signed it.

The only other signature was Joy A. Burton.

Joy looked at it.

Larry fiddled with the plastic copy.

Joy sat still.

"It's not it, is it?" she finally said.

The courthouse was closing. Joy and Larry were told it was time to go.

"I really thought it was going to be that signature," Joy said. "I thought it was going to be more obvious."

Outside, Joy asked her attorney, "Is there anything I can file?"

Weed said she'd think about it. Maybe a final hearing? After Joy left, though, she said the judge had tipped his thoughts on the case. "No practical remedy," he had written. Going to a final hearing, Weed said, "is going to be as helpful as leaning on a ghost."

Was this the end?

"Hell no," Joy said.

She quickly hired a handwriting analyst to examine the signature on the consent. It felt desperate.

Other than a signature that looked like it had been traced and the testimony of a suspect witness, Joy didn't have much evidence. Attorneys' records are gone. Some of the people who were involved in the adoption are dead. Others just don't remember. Jeff Wollam, Melissa's adoptive father, who divorced his wife and then married her best friend, didn't want to talk.

What really happened here?

Maybe Joy signed the consent and just doesn't remember. Maybe she doesn't want to, has subconsciously crafted a more palatable version of a painful chapter in her life. Maybe she signed the medical power of attorney because the consent was only the start of the process and she wanted to leave Melissa with Linda as soon as she could. Maybe she didn't tell Butch and then Butch found out and made Joy change her mind and fight in court. Or maybe Joy was overwhelmed and vulnerable. Maybe Linda saw that.

"I don't care what people think," Joy said. "I know the document that's in there wasn't put there by me and wasn't signed by me."

The handwriting analyst she hired finished her report in late July. Ann Kessler of Palm Harbor is a court-approved document examiner. And the signature on the consent to adopt, she concluded, was not the signature of Joy A. Burton.

Interesting. But Joy had paid this woman. So the Tampa Bay Times hired a second handwriting analyst. Jan Leach of Winter Park is also a court-approved document examiner. She was given 38 of Joy's original signatures from over almost 40 years. She was asked to compare those to the signatures on the release of the medical records and the consent.

The medical records signature wasn't Joy's, Leach determined, and wasn't even close. As for the consent? Because of the shapes of the letters, because of the slant of the script, because of the pattern of the pen lifts, Leach concluded, that wasn't her signature either.

"She didn't do it," Leach said.

Is it possible this adoption was fraudulent? Adoption attorneys say yes. The process back then was more lax than today — "far, far, far" more lax, according to adoption attorney Jeanne Tate of Tampa.

So who signed the consent?

Jessica A. Davis, the notary, is now Jessica A. Bergin. She still works in a law office in St. Petersburg. In a letter to the governor's office, Joy stressed a forgery had been committed, and Bergin wrote back denying the charge. The mere allegation of impropriety 31 years ago, Bergin wrote, is "quite alarming."

"It was all handled by attorneys," Linda said on the phone from Michigan. "We did whatever they told us to do."

She says what the notary says.

"I did nothing wrong."

Two experts say somebody did. It has given Joy the certainty she has sought.

"I have been wronged, and I'm going to do everything in my power to fix that," Joy said. "I have to get this adoption overturned. I'm going to do this till the day I die. I have to stop history."

Stop history. It's a lot to ask.

"You're talking about trying to dig up records from 30 years ago and finding witnesses and all that," said Bernie McCabe, the Pinellas state attorney. Plus, he said, "The adoption was challenged, and she didn't prevail." The prosecution Joy wants is "unlikely."

The statute of limitations for an appeal of an adoption is a year, though a motivated attorney could challenge that in an instance of fraud. A statute of limitations is based in part on the notion that a wrong can be a wrong for so long it can't be made right. The law has no realistic solution. Life goes on.

Melissa is 33. She remembers her third birthday. She remembers playing with a tiny tape recorder in a hallway in her house. Linda's house. She remembers when she was little running into Joy in a grocery store and hiding behind her mom's skirt. Linda's skirt.

"If the document was forged, it does make Joy a victim," Melissa said. "But it doesn't make her innocent."

Deluded or wronged? Any way the answer could be some of both? Joy is unwilling to consider such ambiguity.

"What am I guilty of?" she said last month at her house.

Tears fell down her cheeks. She raised her voice.

"What am I guilty of when somebody commits a crime like this?"

She wiped away her tears.

"That is my daughter."

News researchers Caryn Baird, Natalie Watson, Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him at @michaelkruse on Twitter.