A father’s love for his child is strong enough to topple strongholds.
Christopher Emanuel knows that from experience.
He also knows the anguish of having his rights as a father stripped away. He lost custody of his daughter, Skylar, before he even knew was born.
Seven years ago, Emanuel was in the throes of a fierce battle to get his rights back after Skylar’s mother put the newborn up for adoption at birth without telling him.
Emanuel and his ex-girlfriend were not married. She lied and told him they would raise Skylar together. And by the time he learned of her deception, Skylar was already living with another family thousands of miles away in California.
“She was never legally adopted. My daughter was stolen,” Emanuel told Atlanta Black Star. “My daughter never should have left out of the state of South Carolina. When it happened, I was lost. I was hurt. I felt every emotion that anyone could ever feel. One language can’t describe it. All I knew was that I was going to fight for my child.”
The 31-year-old single father did indeed resist. He spent months fighting an uphill battle to prove that he was Skylar’s biological father and convincing the courts that her mother purposely misled him. He was able to prove that he never gave up his rights as a father and his daughter was returned to him.
Emanuel knows he’s one of the lucky ones. Now he’s a “dad coach” on a mission to make sure no other putative fathers are separated from their children. His aim is to preserve the rights of responsible dads and bring an end to predatory adoption trafficking that strips adopted children of their culture, identity and family.
Emanuel started the Sky Is the Limit Foundation in 2015. The nonprofit is committed to teaching agencies, universities and organizations how to better preserve fathers’ rights. Sky Is the Limit also mentors fathers and even mothers in the midst of their own custody crises. They offer parenting classes and provide resources to willing fathers in need in the form of “daddy dollars.”
“I wanted to ensure that another willing and capable dad wasn’t deprived and stripped of his God-given right to be able to be involved and engaged in a child’s life,” Emanuel said. “Being a parent is the most important job under God. And with that being said, this revealed what I was capable of doing. Your career is what you’re paid for, your calling is what you’re made for. And I find myself living in my calling more and more every day.”
In 2018, the foundation started the No Deadbeats Imprint clothing line to quell negative stereotypes and raise awareness about the impact responsible fathers can have on children.
“Fathers have to prove what a mother is given by default. One way we have to change that as a culture, as a nation and as a community is by focusing on what willing, properly fit and capable dads are doing, and not what dads aren’t doing,” he said. “We’re making taking care of our responsibilities cool again. It’s all about imagery. We literally created our own narrative. We re-purposed the word and made it positive.”
The foundation has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 to help expand its footprint to all 50 states. They’ve worked with human services and early child care agencies all over the nation. Emanuel has shared his story and spoken at universities like Syracuse, Colgate and the University of South Carolina law school.
The GoFundMe campaign will help the foundation add trainees who’ll work with agencies to develop curricula and add more assistance to economically challenged dads so they can provide resources for their kids.
“There’s no manuscript for this,” Emanuel said. “You’ve just got to get in and you’ve got to be your very best at it knowing that you’ve got somebody who’s not just listening to you, but watching your every step. So it’s definitely been enlightening and very rewarding.”
Emanuel has seen the ugly side of adoption when dads and parents aren’t involved. Moms coerced to keep biological fathers’ names out of the process. In some cases, biological fathers have been lied to and told their children died, only to learn the children were actually adopted without the dad’s consent and lost forever. Other times, children are stolen and sold for profit through adoption.
Sky Is the Limit is gathering data now to see how prevalent the issue is. But Emanuel indicated 99 percent of the people who experience what he went through fail to get their rights reinstated.
“When children are stripped from the hands of properly fit and capable fathers and families, they’re treated as commodities and sold for profit through unethical adoption practices,” he said.
A Father’s Fight for His Daughter
Emanuel met Skylar’s mother in 2012. They both drove forklifts at a warehouse in Trenton, South Carolina. She was one of the few women who worked there.
After a few months, their friendship blossomed into romance and they began dating in February 2013. She was white and Emanuel is Black.
By May, Emanuel’s then-girlfriend was pregnant. She invited him to stay at her house while her parents were away for vacation that summer. Emanuel said he was devoted to the idea of becoming a father. He attended prenatal appointments with her. When a sonogram revealed that the child was a girl, Emanuel decided to name his daughter after WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith.
But the parents of Skylar’s mother were dead set against the pregnancy. When she finally broke the news to her parents that she was bearing Emanuel’s child, her mother told her “You’re pregnant by a n—-r. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Emanuel told The Atlantic.
But his girlfriend assured him she would never put Skylar up for adoption. And Emanuel believed her. He communicated with her daily and felt they were building a life together despite her parents’ objections.
Emanuel’s sister Chelsea McKnabb and McKnabb’s friend Jill Thomason were less convinced. After meeting the woman, they both became suspicious of her intentions.
“I think she’s going to give the baby away,” McKnabb warned Emanuel.
Troubled by his girlfriend’s off-putting demeanor, Thomason took it upon herself to start researching paternal rights. She stumbled upon a little-known registry called the South Carolina Responsible Father Registry, a list the state uses to preserve some parental rights of biological fathers unmarried to their child’s mother.
The South Carolina Department of Social Services maintains the registry, which gives putative fathers “the right to be notified when an adoption or a termination of parental rights action occurs.” In Emanuel’s case, it would essentially protect his right to fight for Skylar if her mother put her up for adoption without telling him.
Thomason and McKnabb had a hunch that she would. They tried to convince Emanuel to add his name to the registry. But he trusted his girlfriend and saw no need to do so.
But in September 2013, Emanuel and his mother Natasha finally met his girlfriend’s mother. He explained how he planned to father and provide for Skylar. But his girlfriend’s mother was unmoved. She told him adoption was the only option.
“You may be a nice fella, but [my daughter] knows it’s forbidden to date a n—-r,” Natasha Emanuel recollected to The Atlantic. “How do you think society is going to look at you?”
But Emanuel continued to communicate with Skylar’s mother via texts daily. He checked on her health, he asked about her doctor’s visits and discussed plans for them to move in together. But his pregnant girlfriend grew more and more distant in the months leading up to Skylar’s birth.
Meanwhile, McKnabb and Thomason continued cautioning him to put his name on the Responsible Father Registry. He finally relented Feb. 4, 2014, after his girlfriend failed to show up to a “diaper bash” event his family threw. Emanuel also learned that she lied about the date of a doctor’s visit.
She continued to text him and told him she would be induced for birth Feb. 24. The woman sent him a text Feb. 21 saying, “The baby is still in my belly.” She told him she’d be talking to a doctor about induction the following day.
That all proved to be a lie.
Emanuel was served notice papers on Feb. 22, 2014, which alerted him to the fact that Skylar was born in Aiken County on Feb. 11 and her mother had given her up for adoption to a couple in San Diego, California.
His girlfriend had been in discussions with the couple since August and kept Emanuel in the dark for months about her plans to relinquish custody. She lied in the adoption papers, swearing the biological father wasn’t in the picture. Emanuel was never mentioned by name, but Skylar’s mother said he never paid any of her prenatal medical bills or supported her emotionally or financially.
South Carolina at the time only allowed out-of-state adoptions in cases with “unusual or exceptional circumstances.” One of those circumstances was for mixed-race children. Skylar’s adoptive parents, an interracial couple, used that loophole to petition for her out-of-state adoption. They came to South Carolina to visit with the mother just before her due date and took custody of Skylar the day she was born. The adoption was approved Feb. 20.
By the time Emanuel even learned that his daughter was born, Skylar was already in California with her adoptive family. They’d given her a new name and were ready to embark on a life with the infant.
But Emanuel quickly jumped into action, fighting to get his daughter back. He filed an objection to the adoption Feb. 24 in Greenville, South Carolina, and was forced to take a paternity test to prove he was the biological father.
During an April 7 emergency hearing, he produced text exchanges that showed he was involved with Skylar’s mother during the pregnancy and was excited about becoming a father. The texts created a stark contrast to the picture she painted in affidavits and proved the woman was lying. Ten days after the hearing, a judge granted Emanuel sole custody of his daughter. Skylar was 11 weeks old.
“The best day of my life, man. I cried,” he said. “That day, it was the end of a new beginning, if that makes sense. It was the end, but it was definitely a new beginning. And that’s why we’re here today.”
She’s been with Emanuel ever since. In January 2015, the courts terminated the child’s mother’s parental rights and the case was sealed.
Some states require potential fathers to have the mother’s social security and license numbers. Emanuel didn’t know who to turn to for answers when he was in the midst of his turmoil. But he works to be a tool for those struggling through similar situations. He advises fathers to keep as much documentation as possible, work to get their signatures on the birth certificate and attend prenatal appointments to show their commitment to the child during pregnancy.
“You’ll be surprised at how many dads who are experiencing what I’ve experienced,” he said. “Each state carries his own rules and regulations, but it’s a similar situation. So it’s easy for me because I was once that person who didn’t have anyone to talk to. But now I’m that person on the other side, teaching them about having the mindset.”
Skylar, 7, is now a precocious first grader who reads at a fourth grade level. She loves to sing, draw, and read and enjoys nature.
“She holds me accountable. She lets me know what it is, man, and I see myself in her more and more every day,” Emanuel said. “I know God is real through the way she talks to me.”
He takes pride in knowing that Skylar will one day know that he started the foundation and helped other fathers all in her name. He’s working now to give her the tools she needs to thrive. He wants his story to be one that inspires confidence in mothers and fathers struggling through custody battles today.
“The only way you won’t see your child is if you don’t want to see your child,” Emanuel said. “You’ve got to fight. And I’m hopeful that those that read this story, it’s a symbol of hope. It gives them a voice, encourages the resilience and endurance they need to persevere and keep pushing. And most importantly, never give up. Because one day your child, whether they’re near or far, is going to go back and they’re going to be able to see exactly what you did. So I encourage them to document everything. Document! Document! Document!”