Standing in his daughter's bedroom, Brandon Marteliz tried to fight back tears.
“It’s hard," Marteliz said. "Sometimes I can come in here, and sometimes I can’t.”
Marteliz's only child is a daughter he has never met.
“I had books for her, a few toys, tons of clothes. I’m getting ready to give them away because I know they’re not going to fit her anymore," Marteliz said.
His daughter will turn 2 in January. Marteliz took a picture with his child's mother two days before she gave birth.
"Hands on her, talking to my daughter through her stomach. You know, I was there, I was with her," Marteliz said. "We had her name picked out and everything."
Pictures then turned to panic, Marteliz said.
The day before their daughter was born, he texted to ask if she was going to the hospital the next day. She said she thought so. He responded by asking if she was going to come outside and when she was going. No response.
Then, Marteliz said, “I was told that my daughter passed away."
In a court filing, Marteliz said the mother of his child told him the child had died due to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
“I couldn’t accept it. I needed to see," Marteliz said. "I’m going to hospitals, and they’re calling security on me because I’m in here looking for my daughter. And I can’t find her.”
Then, nearly three weeks after their daughter was born, the mother sent two texts to Marteliz: "I have her" and “I got the baby.”
That news marked the start of a new nightmare for Marteliz, with him texting her, “I wanna see my baby.”
“I found out from a CPS lady that there was a baby that was born, a newborn that was alive. And I reached out to someone that worked for her. The adoption agency that she told me about," Marteliz said. “I felt like OK, well I’m the father, I’m her dad, I can take a test, I can prove I’m her dad, my daughter’s alive."
Marteliz is fighting for custody while the child is with prospective adoptive parents through the agency Heart of Adoptions.
According to court documents, the day after his baby was born before he said he even knew it, the mother consented to adoption and named Marteliz as a "man who may have interest in the minor child."
Court documents show the adoption agency said the termination of parental rights was not required because they were not married, he wasn't listed on the birth certificate, was not on the putative father registry, a little-known state registry for fathers to claim paternity, and had, "not paid a fair and reasonable amount of living and medical expenses" in connection with the pregnancy and birth.
“They were trying to ask me if I would — that she’s going to a great home and all this, and I, I couldn’t hear that. I cut off, I said no she’s not. Over my dead body, she’s not," Marteliz said of his conversation with Heart of Adoptions.
He filed a petition to determine paternity and filled out the registry the same month his daughter was born.
“I am willing to do whatever it takes to be given custody of my daughter and be in her life," Marteliz wrote in court records. "I am willing to pay whatever form or support or cost it takes."
Marteliz denied he was aware of the mother's adoption plan in May 2021, and denied he provided no financial support during her pregnancy. He stated he didn't maintain contact with the child because the mother and the "adoption people" prevented it.
"Mr. Marteliz was afforded every right he was entitled to under the law, and that the court simply reached a decision that Mr. Marteliz disagrees with," said an attorney for the adoption agency.
"I understand there’s people that might not be able to have kids and they might need kids but they can have the ones that people are not able to take care of. I can take care of my baby," Marteliz said.
Marteliz owns a business, IRIE Trees.
David Hurvitz, Marteliz's attorney, said it's a fight with a law that favors adoption agencies.
“It’s very difficult to navigate it and it’s hard to fight against it. It needs reform," Hurvitz said.
Ulysess Carwise is a father who has a similar story. Carwise is still fighting for his daughter more than five years after she was born and signed over to an adoption agency without his knowledge or consent.
Carwise's story inspired other Tampa Bay-area fathers to contact Scripps News Tampa, saying they, too, are in an uphill battle to establish parental rights.
In October, a judge decided because Marteliz had not provided any financial or medical support since the child's birth, his consent was not required to move forward with an adoption.
“She should be here in this house," Marteliz said. “I’m the one who can love her. Nobody can do that like I can.”
Marteliz said he could not give up.
Attorneys said the window of time to appeal the case has closed. Marteliz maintains he will continue fighting for his daughter.
“There’s a lot of fathers out there that are being robbed, that are good dads, that would — that are great dads. Something needs to be done about this. We need some help. So if anybody can hear us, we need some help," Marteliz said.
This article was originally published by Kylie McGivern for Scripps News Tampa.
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