JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Baker County father is hoping to change a Florida law that led to his own daughter being taken away from him and given to a different man to raise her.
The News4JAX I-TEAM found the child's biological mother was separated from her husband when she and Shane Schmidt conceived the child. They raised the girl as their own family for a few years until Schmidt and the mother broke up. At that time, the mother's legal husband, stepped forward and told the court he wanted to claim his rights to the child, and because of that intact marriage, that man was declared the child's legal father.
That ruling came in 2017 during a dependency hearing for the child. The Department of Children and Families was involved because, according to documents obtained by the I-TEAM, the child's biological mother was suffering with drug abuse and mental health issues and her home was no longer found to be stable for the child.
Schmidt wanted to step forward and claim his daughter, but he said he wasn't even given the chance to take a DNA test and prove his paternity. Despite the fact that he works as a contractor for the government, cleared a background check and must pass random drug tests as part of his employment, he says he was completely shut out of his daughter's life and had zero legal rights to her or her future.
"It leveled me. It ruined, it literally ruined my life," Schmidt said as he sat down with the I-TEAM at his new attorney's office. "The worst part is knowing that as bad as it was for me, it was even worse for her."
The I-TEAM found in this case, under Florida law, the man who is recognized by the court as the "legal father" to the child was given “legal presumption,” or in layman's terms, because of the marriage, was presumed to be the legitimate father -- instead of Schmidt -- and doesn't have to prove paternity at all.
Schmidt explained what one of his first attorneys in the case told him.
"Essentially, they found a way to legally kidnap your daughter. I had zero rights. There was nothing I could do. All because she was separated but not divorced from her husband at the time of conception," he said.
Schmidt says he has spent thousands of dollars trying to reverse the decision. Meanwhile, his daughter is now two years older.
"In this case, I think the best interest of the child was forgotten,” she said. “In dependency court they are supposed to be about best interest of the child and protecting the child and that was not done," said Holli Dean, Schmidt's new attorney.
Dean is now hoping to use a new Florida Supreme Court ruling to overturn Schmidt's case. That ruling came in 2018, one year after Schmidt's daughter was turned over to the other man. The ruling said presumption of legitimacy in a marriage is just that: a presumption that can be challenged -- like when a biological father has been bonded to a child and provided for the child, like Schmidt said he'd done for his daughter’s entire life until she was taken from him.
Schmidt says no matter what, he will keep fighting for his little girl.
"Right now my number one concern is to get my daughter back. I'm fighting to get rights to my daughter,” he said. “In the long run, eventually, I want to have the law changed. I can't believe this all even exists."
The child's custodial father did speak to the I-TEAM by phone. He declined an on-camera interview but did provide this statement. We are concealing the other family members' identities to protect their privacy.
The custodial father tells us:
"This child is happy and living in a safe, stable and healthy home with both of her half-siblings. Her wellbeing was considered by the court system and I think there are layers to this story that not everyone is going to see and understand. My fight from the beginning was to make sure this little girl was going to be taken care of and I will continue to fight for her well-being and her future."
That man who has custody of the little girl is still married to the girl’s biological mother, despite being separated for more than six years. In that time, he has been living with his longtime girlfriend – who also happens to be Schmidt's ex-wife. Schmidt’s ex-wife also shares another, older child with Schmidt. Schmidt believes he and his ex-wife’s custody case of their older daughter is now tied up and related to his youngest daughter, since the children now live together with his ex-wife and her boyfriend, the legal husband of the little girl’s biological mother.
The I-TEAM received two statements from the child's biological mother asking that her daughter be given back to Shane Schmidt, writing:
"(Shane) and myself have been refused visitation and phone calls without any just cause. (Shane) is her biological father and the only Daddy she has ever known. He was present when she was born in the hospital and every day in her life until the day DCF came... I feel that my daughter was unjustly, unfairly, and unlawfully removed from the home of (Shane) Schmidt and myself, and then placed with (my legal husband) with no consideration of the well-being of (my daughter)."
Schmidt has two court cases coming up in May. His attorney is hoping to have the paternity order tossed out in Baker County to allow Schmidt to prove his rightful paternity, and then they will go to Nassau County, where the child now resides, and fight to establish Schmidt's legal rights. The child’s custodial father has vowed to keep fighting for his rights to keep the little girl. We will keep you posted.