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Shared Custody OKd in Surrogate Mother Case

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Times Staff Writer

Ending one of the first court cases of its kind in California, a Chula Vista couple and a Mexican woman who served as the surrogate mother for their child agreed Monday to share custody of the baby girl.

Although both sides expressed satisfaction with the agreement reached before Superior Court Judge William Pate, neither gained a total victory. Mario and Natty Haro had sought sole custody of 8-month-old Lydia Michelle Haro, while the child’s natural mother, Alejandra Munoz, entered the case hoping for a more balanced shared-custody arrangement than the one reached Monday.

Under the agreement, the Haros will retain primary physical custody of the child, while Munoz’s current thrice-weekly visitation rights will be increased in stages later this year. Beginning in August, Munoz will be allowed to keep the child for overnight stays every other Friday.

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“We feel good, because this basically keeps things the same way,” said Mario Haro, who agreed to pay Munoz $50 a month for child support. “We didn’t lose anything.”

Munoz’s attorney, Harvey Berman, expressed disappointment that his client did not receive additional overnight visitation rights, but Munoz herself said that she was pleased with the agreement.

“I feel fine--this is all being done for the good of Lydia,” Munoz said in Spanish after Monday’s hearing.

Viewed at its outset as a potentially precedent-setting case on various legal questions relating to surrogate births, the trial’s impact apparently will be limited to the case itself because it was settled before the judge made a ruling.

Describing the four-day legal battle as “a unique case in many ways,” Pate said he believes that Monday’s settlement was “in the best interests of the child.”

“When we got down to the bottom line . . . the basic precepts of the law are what prevailed,” Pate said. “The court must see that the best interests of the child prevail.”

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The agreement, worked out in Pate’s chambers between attorneys for both sides and for the child, specifies that Munoz’s current visitation rights--4 1/2 hours on Mondays and Fridays and two hours on Wednesdays--will remain the same through April 24.

During the next four months, through Aug. 24, that schedule will be supplemented with a 4 1/2-hour visit every other Saturday. From Aug. 25 through Dec. 24, Munoz, a 21-year-old former cleaning woman, will receive her first overnight visitation rights on every other Friday. On those occasions, Munoz will be able to keep the child with her from 11 a.m. Friday until 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Pate instructed both sides to try to reach agreement on shared custody arrangements for 1988 and beyond by the end of this year. If such an agreement has not been reached by Dec. 24, Munoz’s attorney could file another suit seeking to modify the visitation terms that will be in place at that time.

“We’ll live with it and just get more and more time . . . as time goes on,” Berman said of the agreement. However, Merle Schneidewind, the Haros’ attorney, said he expects “no major changes” in the custody terms after December “because you can’t take an 18-month-old baby and flip-flop it all around.”

One major uncertainty that could dramatically affect future custody arrangements concerns the immigration status of Munoz, who entered the United States illegally when she agreed to serve as the child’s surrogate mother and has been ordered to leave the country by April 22. Berman said Monday he hopes that the shared custody agreement will bolster Munoz’s efforts to remain in this country or, at least, to extend that deadline.

The origins of the controversial case date to 1985, when a mutual aunt of Munoz and Mrs. Haro suggested that Munoz serve as a surrogate mother for the Haros, who were unable to have children.

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Mario Haro, a 33-year-old high school science teacher, and Natty Haro, a 37-year-old bank employee, subsequently arranged to have Munoz and her young daughter brought across the border from a small village outside Mazatlan, Mexico. Munoz moved into the Haros’ home, artificially inseminated herself with Mario Haro’s sperm and gave birth to Lydia Michelle on June 25, 1986.

The Haros contended that Munoz willingly agreed to bear the child in return for $1,500. Munoz, however, said that the Haros originally told her that her fertilized ovum would be transplanted into Natty Haro’s womb in the early stages of pregnancy, but then reneged on the deal and duped her into signing a statement giving them custody of the child.

In a surprise twist in the case Friday, the Haros abandoned their efforts to prove that the handwritten note was a valid contract. Schneidewind said that the Haros did so because they did not want to exacerbate already strained family relationships by having relatives testify for or against them in an attempt to settle the question.

However, Berman, who implied that the Haros had doctored the note after Munoz signed it, argued that Schneidewind made the tactical move in an effort to avoid seriously undermining his clients’ credibility.

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