GOOSE CREEK — It took years for retired Charleston longshoreman Kenneth Middleton to get full custody of 16-year-old Joshua.

Maybe it was fitting that it happened just before Father's Day.

After years of legal wrangling in which Middleton helped cement a new legal doctrine of "psychological parent" rights in South Carolina, Middleton became the boy's permanent guardian last week after reaching an agreement with the boy's mother.

A family court judge signed an order giving Middleton full custody of Joshua, whom he has helped raise from childhood even after a paternity test showed that he was not the boy's father.

"I would recommend it for any father today," Middleton said of his six-year fight that went as high as the S.C. Court of Appeals. "If you have standing in the child's life and the child sees you as a parent, it's worth it."

Middleton's courtroom achievement is that he was able to prove a strong psychological bond had formed between the two, arguing that Joshua would be emotionally damaged if his relationship and father-figure role was abruptly removed.

The doctrine has been recognized in other states but not so much in South Carolina until Middleton forced the issue.

"It's a happy ending, and we don't see many of those," said Middleton's current family court attorney, Nancy Bailey of Florence.

Joshua Rashad Hollington was born in April 1993. Middleton acted as if he were the boy's father even though he and Joshua's mother never married. He took him to school and went to his ball games and teacher-parent conferences at school.

When a paternity test taken much later showed that Middleton was not Joshua's father, Middleton stayed on as the boy's "dad."

Tensions later arose with Joshua's mother. After she had married, she moved to cut Middleton out of their lives, prompting him to go to court, challenging the state's child-visitation laws.

The first round went against him when a family court judge denied his request for court-ordered visitation.

Under South Carolina law at that time, the fit biological parent — in this case Joshua's mother — retained the fundamental right to determine whether any third party could visit her child.

And because the youth understood that he had a biological father elsewhere, Middleton could not legally be his psychological parent, the court said, and therefore had no legal right for visitation.

Middleton appealed, and in 2006 his case was argued in front of the S.C. Court of Appeals. The judges backed Middleton and his then-attorney, Margaret Fabri of Charleston, sending the case back to Berkeley County, where a judge approved a visitation schedule.

Middleton's effort is now widely recognized as pioneering right-of-access law in the state. "It's a wonderful case because it established a precedent for nonrelated people to continue relationships with a child that may have been disrupted," Bailey said.

As the boy grew into a young adult, Middleton applied for full custody, which Florence County Family Court Judge Jerry Vinson approved last week, making what had been partial custody status full custody.

Adoption might come later. Joshua is an honor student and rising junior at Stratford High School.

Middleton said the issue is one of fathers sticking with their children, fighting separation and knowing there is a reward at the end.

"The thing that makes me feel good about this is, I got to rescue a young child and help give him the opportunity to be the best he can be," he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, or skropf@postandcourier.com.