NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee foster family fighting to recover the little girl they raised from infancy could be out of options after a judge ruled that Sonya McCaul no longer needs to be looked after by the state.
Tennessee Department of Children's Services took custody of Sonya in 2005, when she was just 1 year old. That happened after a baby sitter brought the child to Tennessee from Nebraska and then failed to take her back.
While in DCS custody, Sonya was raised for eight years by foster parents David and Kim Hodgins. But after a protracted legal battle, a Dickson County juvenile judge sent the girl to live with her birth father in Omaha, Nebraska, for what was essentially a trial home visit in January 2013. Since then, the Hodgins say they have had no contact with Sonya, although they have continued to fight for her in court.
On Thursday, Juvenile Judge Tony Sanders agreed to a DCS request to remove Sonya from state custody. The move gives father John McCaul custody by default once the judge's order is signed and filed.
David Hodgins said in a phone interview that the family will continue to seek Sonya's return through the courts.
"We made her a promise on the night she was taken from us that we would never give up on her, and we won't," he said.
But John McCaul's attorney, Lynn Coffinberry, said she does not expect the Thursday ruling to be overturned. As former foster parents, the Hodgins do not have any legal right to custody of Sonya, she said.
The high-profile custody battle hit a nerve among supporters of both sides who have been vocal on social media sites.
John McCaul's supporters accuse the Hodginses of essentially kidnapping Sonya. Coffinberry said Sonya could have been back with her birth family years ago if the Hodginses had not tried to adopt her — a procedure that legally put on hold the efforts of DCS to place Sonya with her paternal grandmother.
Supporters of the Hodginses say Sonya was put into the family's care by chance, but they loved and cared for her as their own. They point out that John McCaul was in prison for most of the time Sonya lived with the Hodginses and say the couple only want what is best for the child.
"All we did was try to raise our daughter in a safe, happy home environment," David Hodgins said. "We are extremely concerned about Sonya's welfare."
Coffinberry said the girl is doing well, an assessment that her court-appointed guardian has testified to in court.
But David Hodgins said he does not believe it.
"When does a 9-year-old girl just write off her parents?" he asked.