Magazine | February 9, 2015, Issue

Father Knows Last

The strange and necessary ‘putative-fathers registries’

M. C. lost his children before he knew he had any.

M. C., as he is known in court documents, had had a long-distance relationship with J. Z. for about six months. Upon learning that she was pregnant, he invited her to live with him in Des Moines, Iowa, which she did, for a week, after which time she told M. C. that she’d suffered a miscarriage and, citing homesickness, broke things off with him before returning home to Grand Junction, Colo. — where she later gave birth to twins.

J. Z. lied to her children’s father, and she also lied about him when she decided to put her children up for adoption. She told Adoption Choices, a licensed placement agency, that she knew only his first name and had only very vague notions about how he might be contacted. After a pro forma attempt to inform the father of the birth — an announcement in the Denver Business Journal, which is not widely read in Des Moines — both parents’ parental rights were terminated by a district court as a prerequisite to the children’s adoption by a couple working with Adoption Choices.

The unhappy truth is that a great many men in M. C.’s position — perhaps even a majority of them — would have been happy to leave things there. Chronic and widespread paternal absenteeism is the depressing new normal: More than a third of American children live in homes without their fathers, and there can be little doubt that that number would be higher but for the fact that one in five pregnancies (and two in five unintended pregnancies) end in abortion, very often with the father’s consent and far too often under his pressure. But it is also the case that fathers across the country who want to raise their children have been denied the right to do so, often under dodgy circumstances. Often, adoptions are carried out before fathers even know that the child has been born; in the high-profile case of Jake Strickland in Utah, a father who had been happily furnishing a nursery and planning to raise a son jointly with the boy’s mother was shocked to learn that she had given birth a week before a scheduled caesarean section and finalized adoption papers before he ever saw the child.

Fathers who attempt to secure their rights through the courts face both a hostile legal environment and a prejudice against single fathers. When M. C. sued for custody of his twin sons, the court agreed that his parental rights had been terminated by fraud and that the adoption proceeding was consequently void. But that was not enough — not nearly. He was granted limited visitation rights, and a guardian ad litem was appointed to evaluate him and his relationship with his children.

Unsurprisingly, the guardian ad litem found that he had no substantial relationship with them — he was given only a few four-hour visits, and those required his traveling from Iowa to Colorado. The guardian also deprecated his capacity for fatherhood, declaring that while he was “not in any way objectionable” and certainly not unfit under the law, the people who had adopted his children — through fraud; not of their own, but fraud nonetheless — were really, really nice. They were, the guardian’s report said, “extraordinary” parents, “even to the point of making all of the children’s baby food at home from organic ingredients.” The father, on the other hand, was “naïve about the needs of his children,” who had grown “attached to their nanny, who cared for them approximately four days a week in their own home.” If you were wondering how deeply lifestyle liberalism has infected our national consciousness — there is no scientific evidence that so-called organic foods are healthier — then there’s your answer: What’s the “in no way objectionable” flesh and blood of a father when there are homemade strained organic carrots to be considered?

M. C. lost in the first round but won a reversal in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

#page#There is no better emblem of the chaos of our contemporary family arrangements than the existence — and the necessity — of the “putative father registry,” a legal instrument for securing the parental rights of men who wish to be fathers to their children but not, for whatever reason, husbands to their children’s mothers. Some 34 states already offer such registries, and the National Council for Adoption, among other advocates, is petitioning Congress to create a national registry.

“The 34 registries only work if all the parties are in that state,” says Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption. “Starting around 1997, there’d been several national cases that had a ripple effect of concern among those of us who were doing adoptions and those adopting children, when, even years after the fact, a biological father was able to come back into the picture and undo a completed adoption. The putative father registries give them an opportunity to make their intentions known, secure their notice of any adoption proceedings.” Among the many bills that sank in the bottomless pit of Harry Reid’s Senate was Mary Landrieu’s Protecting Adoptions and Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Act of 2009, which would have established a national registry.

The problem, as Johnson acknowledges, is that the registries themselves can be used as a legal tool to override the rights of fathers if, as in the case of M. C., they were unaware of the pregnancy until after the fact, or if, as in the case of Jake Strickland, they failed for one reason or another to avail themselves of the registry’s benefits. Strickland, who is involved in an ongoing effort to regain custody of his son, Jack, thought about putting his name on the registry but says he was dissuaded from doing so by the child’s mother, who complained that it would be a sign of distrust. Strickland accompanied the mother to doctor appointments, paid her medical bills and gave her other financial support, and prepared his home for his son, only to learn on the day of the scheduled C-section that Jack had been born a week earlier and already had been adopted.

To make things more complicated, Strickland also learned that the mother was still married to a man from whom she had become estranged when she became pregnant with Jack, and that she’d listed Jack’s father as “Unknown” on birth records; under Utah law, her estranged husband is the presumed father. Strickland has never met his son, who will turn five this year. In addition to custody, he has sued the mother for $130 million in damages, charging that the adoption was the result of “gross misdirection and clandestine conduct.”

Ruling on a similar case in Virginia, state supreme court justice Leroy F. Millette Jr. wrote:

It is both astonishing and profoundly disturbing that in this case, a biological mother and her parents, with the aid of two licensed attorneys and an adoption agency, could intentionally act to prevent a biological father — who is in no way alleged to be an unfit parent — from legally establishing his parental rights and gaining custody of a child whom the mother did not want to keep, and that this father would have no recourse in the law. The facts as pled indicate that the defendants went to great lengths to disguise their agenda from the biological father, including preventing notice of his daughter’s birth and hiding their intent to have an immediate out-of-state adoption, in order to prevent the legal establishment of his own parental rights.

In that case, the father was a Virginia resident contesting an adoption that had happened in Utah, and the Utah supreme court ruled against the father, among other reasons because he had not used the Utah registry, registering instead in Virginia, where he lives. Utah is infamously narrow on the subject of the legal rights of unmarried fathers, and not especially helpful, either: Unlike practically every other state with a father registry, it does not even make its forms available online, requiring that they be picked up in person even when the father lives thousands of miles away.

Johnson worries that registries will be used as a weapon against fathers rather than as a way to ensure that they are consulted in adoption decisions. “We don’t want them used as a legal way to get rid of the father,” he says, “but as a safety net for fathers.” The only real solution, he says, is due diligence on the part of legal authorities and adoption agencies, along with “exhaustive searches” for fathers.

There was another solution, once, something or other about “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health,” but that’s all long gone, and the comprehensive failure of efforts to repeal so-called no-fault divorce laws suggests very strongly that, pious lip service notwithstanding, no one much misses it. The problems experienced by these fathers are an inescapable feature of the prevailing model of family life, in which marriage and parenthood are separated. While they are nonetheless necessary, no registry or legal reform has the power to reverse that. Our era’s rising sexual and social chaos has been quite hard on women and children, but spare a thought for the fathers, too.

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