This article explores the role of birth fathers in adoption. What role do they play? What role can they play? What legal rights do they have?
It turns out that birth fathers have few legal rights, especially compared to the mothers. Many times children are put up for adoption without the father’s consent or awareness. Sometimes when they are aware, they have difficulty stopping the adoption process. Yes, unintentionally conceived children often have absentee fathers, but what about those fathers that WANT to be fathers? What about those fathers that would be more than willing to be a single parent? How does the law deem them fit or unfit as parents, and are they given the opportunity to prove their fitness? Shouldn’t they be given a fair chance?
In this article the story of Peter and Joan Stanley (1972) makes the best argument for unwed birth fathers deserving parental rights. Peter and Joan Stanley lived together and had three children together but never got married. When Joan passed away the three children became wards of the state. Peter fought for his paternal rights. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court where they ruled that “Peter was entitled to a hearing under the Due Process Clause to prove his fitness as a parent before losing custody.” This man was committed to his partner and committed to his 3 children yet he had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for his paternal rights. The lack of a marriage license put him at risk of losing custody of his children, and put his children at risk of being in foster care rather than with their caring father. For Peter to have his rights threatened when he had been an active father and partner is baffling (similar cases followed and some changes have been made since Peter Stanley’s case). Why didn’t his biological connection to his children suffice? Why didn’t his history of being an active father suffice?
His biological tie to his children and his history of being an active father did not suffice because most cases aren’t like Peter Stanley’s case. Newborn adoptions usually proceed because two people with an unstable, or complete lack of a relationship ‘accidentally’ make a baby. Some men want to parent their accident whether they have a relationship with the mother of the accident or not. What options do these mavericks have?
In some states there are “putative registries” which allow men to notify the state that they had sexual relations with a female which may result in a child. If a man registers with the state and a baby is conceived the state is obligated to notify him of the child’s existence, notify him of adoption proceedings and give him the opportunity to take responsibility for the child. Usually there is a specific time frame for a birth father to claim paternal rights. In Utah a birth father has up until 24 hours after his child’s birth to claim paternal rights. Basically, in Utah if a woman wants to give her newborn up for adoption but is worried that the birth father will not voluntarily relinquish his parental rights she simply has to wait 1 day before notifying him of the child’s birth, and an adoption may proceed. Utah’s 24 hour time frame is an extreme case. Usually the birth father has at least 10 days from the child’s birth date to claim paternal rights.
(Sometimes I go 10 days without checking my mail! Which means if I were a birth father I could lose my parental rights, because I didn’t check my mail in time. Also, I don’t answer calls from unknown numbers! I’d be screwed.)
Claiming paternal rights can be a tricky and convoluted process. Putative registries are inconsistent and inconspicuous. The laws differ from state to state and most men don’t know that putative registries exist. For example, based on one of the anecdotes in this article, it turns out that if a birth father lives in one state, the birth mother lives in another state and the prospective adoptive parents live in a third state, the birth father could be required to register in ALL THREE states in order to have the right to stop the adoption process. Mark McDermott of the Law Offices of Mark. T. McDermott believes there should be a national putative registry in order to simplify the process. ” We have 50 different sets of laws and they are dramatically different. It is just astoundingly different on every little point. Since I am licensed in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, I get to see this everyday. It is all day long – I’m switching from D.C. to Maryland to Virginia law.” Some others are calling for more widespread education about putative registries so men will be more aware about ways to claim paternal rights. Maybe increasing awareness about putative registries would motivate more men to claim paternal rights and would cut down on the amount of people with daddy issues.
If it is the case that a birth mother is planning on giving her child up for adoption, and the birth father won’t relinquish paternal rights, he should be willing to be a single father. Because, here’s the thing, if he wants to be a father but the birth mother wants to relinquish parental rights, then he doesn’t really have the right to make her be a mother to the child just because he wants to be a father. Does he?
This is a difficult issue because I see both sides. In cases like Peter and Joan’s I think that the father should absolutely have parental rights. But then there are the more common cases…
- What if the father claims rights just to spite the birth mother?
- What if he claims his rights and then becomes an absentee father anyway?
- What if he claims his rights out of pride and then is an unfit parent?
- Teenagers can have a child and give them up for adoption, so can a teenage father dispute an adoption and claim parental rights even if he himself is a minor?
If a birth mother can relinquish parental rights and still be allowed to reclaim her child within a given time frame, the birth father should at least have the right to prove his fitness as a parent within a reasonable time frame before the child is given up for adoption.
Honestly I don’t think that there are that many men fighting to parent their accident. And for some of those that do, I think that if they were included in the adoption process they would be more willing to relinquish their rights.
My birth dad was completely included in the process, relinquished his rights and has been very active in my open adoption. So, you never know how things might play out. But thank goodness that he knew better than to try to raise me on his own.
LOVE always and forever,