The Atlantic did a thought-provoking piece on Putative Father Registries this week that really highlights the difficulties that face unmarried dads who want to parent their children when the mother wants to choose adoption.
Putative Father Registries (also called “Responsible Father Registries” in some places) are systems that many states have created to solve a common problem in adoption: How do we address the rights of fathers we can’t find? Whether the dad is purposely making himself scarce or has just neglected to keep current with the mom, I think we can all agree that simply not allowing the child to be adopted is not a good solution. Further, allowing the birth dad to enter the scene and object after the adoption is final would be horrible for everyone. Many states allow a birth mother to publish a notice in the newspaper if she has tried hard to find the father and can’t, but this has the double drawback of (1) making private matters public and (2) giving very little hope that the father will actually see the notice. So, some states created registries where any man who has had sex with a woman can register himself as a potential dad. By doing so, he secures his right to be notified of any adoption proceeding involving his child.
One problem with Putative Father Registries is that in many places, no one knows that they exist. I was proud to see my home state of Virginia noted as an exception – our PFR has a great public outreach campaign. But, wait – South Carolina, which was cited as having lousy publicity for its PFR, had 259 men register as fathers last year. Virginia, even with slightly higher number of out-of-wedlock births, had only 111 registries. So, more publicity doesn’t necessarily mean more registrations. However, without publicity, there will never be any registrations, so getting the word out about Putative Father Registries needs to be a high priority in every state.
There is a great unfairness in the fact that unmarried mothers automatically have parental rights over their children, while fathers have to vigorously and quickly pursue those rights. I don’t know how to solve this problem, since it’s really a problem of biology: A mother is easy to identify and find, because she’s the one who gives birth to the child. I think putative father registries, properly done, are a good start to solving this unfairness.
I had a lot of problems with the Atlantic article. I don’t agree with the author that “In fact, registries were primarily designed to protect adoptive couples.” Legislative history shows that the registries were designed to protect children from adoption disruption, which is extremely traumatic, and to make it reasonably possible for birth fathers to protect their rights. The issue of father’s rights is complicated, and painting legislators as being out to get fathers is not helpful. The author laments the lack of publicity of Putative Father Registries, but ignores the fact that publicity doesn’t seem to lead to more fathers registering. He also lost some credibility with me by confusing state supreme courts with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, there are lessons in this story for all parties to an adoption.
Birth mothers, when you’re making an adoption plan, bear in mind that it’s extremely important to be honest about who the baby’s father is and to include him in the adoption planning process. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it can save the baby from serious trauma down the road, when she could be removed from an adoptive family she has bonded with and returned to her dad.
Birth fathers, know that your rights are fragile and that you have to protect those rights. Look up whether your state has a Putative Father Registry. If not, find out what you have to do to protect your right to parent your child.
Many lawyers will give you an initial consultation for free or for a modest fee. Make sure you choose a lawyer who specializes in adoption!
Adoptive families, when you hire an adoption attorney or agency, insist upon knowing how they handle birth fathers’ rights. A reputable professional will have a policy of showing respect to both parents, not trying to hide from, avoid, or trick anyone.
Adoption professionals, respecting all parties to your adoptions isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the only way to save all the parties, most importantly the child, from needless heartbreak. Unless you want to have a reputation for heartbreak, develop a reputation for integrity. Involve the birth father as early in the process as possible. If he wants to raise his child, then what you have is not a potential adoptive placement – end of story.
Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.