Five-year-old Courtney Thomas appeared at ease Saturday as she and her legal father prepared for a swimming pool party to celebrate the birthday of one of her friends.
Repeatedly referring to Kevin Thomas as "Daddy," Courtney seemed excited as she danced in the doorway of his Van Nuys condominium, showing off her new pink bathing suit.
It was the first weekend Courtney and Thomas had been reunited after the girl's seven-week abduction by her biological mother, who is in jail facing a charge of child stealing.
Courtney's safe return was "the most wonderful thing a parent could ever have happen," Thomas said in an interview Saturday.
Thomas, 43, who is openly gay, is not biologically related to Courtney. But he said life without her "was hell on earth."
Despite the abduction, Thomas said he thinks the child should have a relationship with her mother, Catherine Thomas.
"My focus is on good parenting," he said. "I would encourage a good relationship between Catherine and Courtney."
The girl has been the focus of a bitter custody dispute. A judge awarded primary custody to Kevin Thomas, with visitation rights to Catherine Thomas. The mother fled with the child July 29, and was sought by authorities for child abduction. Catherine Thomas, 46, a single mother of three, was taken into custody last week in a Pittsburgh train station after another traveler recognized her and Courtney from a national television report.
Thomas said the important issues in the case have been blurred.
"It's turned into motherhood versus martyrdom," he said. "And I think we need to see a little more motherhood."
Thomas said he and Courtney have been undergoing "reunification counseling" together. He plans to enroll her in day care and school.
He said the girl was happy to return home.
"Courtney walked in here the night she arrived off the plane as if nothing ever happened," he said. "She was showing off her room to people."
Courtney has been to a doctor and she is "fine," Thomas said. She has on occasion referred to herself as "Paige," the alias she used while traveling with her mother, Thomas said.
After a five-day, closed hearing in June, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin formally recognized the father-daughter relationship between Thomas and Courtney and then granted him primary custody of the child.
Though Catherine Thomas acknowledged that Kevin Thomas had been a close friend, who baby-sat for Courtney and took her to school everyday, she denied that they had agreed to raise the child together, as he contended.
Catherine Thomas said Friday that she illegally fled the state with Courtney because her lawyer told her Thomas was trying to revoke her visitation rights.
The mother and child disappeared July 29 during a monitored visit. As a result, her visitation rights were revoked the next day. Already convicted of misdemeanor child stealing for fleeing with Courtney last year, she could be sentenced to up to four years in custody if found guilty of the new charges.