Adoption and Putative Father Registries

December 12, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In my response to the Washington Post’s article on the parental rights of incarcerated parents, I had occasion to skewer claims by two “experts” that taking children from their parents is OK because they can simply be adopted and therefore have a “forever home.”  As I pointed out, the arithmetic regarding adoption definitively refutes that notion.

That encouraged me to consult the best source of information regarding adoption in the U.S., the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI).  Alas, its website says that DAI has been shuttered since the beginning of this year, but fortunately, its work product is still there.  That means I have the best data available on adoption.

Here are the numbers:

In the U.S., each year there are about 135,000 adoptions completed.  Of those about 13,500 are domestic infant adoptions.  Stepparent adoptions number about 45,000, so non-stepparent adoptions amount to about 90,000.  There are about 53,100 adoptions out of child welfare agencies, i.e. foster care and about 23,400 international adoptions.

As I’ve said before, the paucity of adoptive parents means that there are always far more children needing adoption in this country than are adopted.  Compared to the approximately 425,000 children in foster care who need to be adopted, those 53,100 adoptions don’t look like a lot.  One out of eight kids  finding a home is a far cry from what’s needed.

So to reiterate, we have too many kids who already need adoption and far too few parents to adopt them.  Forcing adoption on kids who don’t need it only adds to the drain on adoptive parents.  From a humanitarian standpoint and from a policy standpoint, doing so makes no sense.

That of course brings me to putative father registries whose primary function is to facilitate adoptions by removing single fathers from the process thereby unnecessarily increasing the number of kids needing adoption.  Ironically, PFRs are invariably described as, in some mysterious way, enhancing fathers’ rights to be involved in the adoption process.  They do no such thing as the DAI report “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birth Parents in the Adoption Process” makes abundantly clear.

PFRs require every unmarried man who has sexual intercourse with a woman to file a form with the state claiming paternity of any possible child that may result from the encounter.  Failure to do so means the man waives his right to be notified if Mom places the child for adoption.  PFR enabling legislation invariably justifies such a bizarre requirement by claiming that, well, men are presumed to know that sex makes babies so…

Men of course do know that, but what they don’t know and have no way of knowing is whether (a) conception occurred, (b) abortion or other termination didn’t occur, (c) the child is alive and (d) Mom placed it for adoption.  About all those things, Dad must rely on Mom to inform him.  If she chooses not to, he has no way of finding out if he has a child or not.  As is so often the case, he supposedly has parental rights, just no way to exercise them without her consent.  Or, as the DAI report says it,

In reality, the extent to which a man can be involved in the adoption process or a parenting decision depends largely on his relationship with the mother at that time. If she has an ongoing, positive relationship with the father, she normally would welcome his involvement; if she does not, however, she may resist his involvement out of fear, desire to control the situation, or for other reasons.

Now, he could always file that multitude of forms with the putative father registry, but there’s a catch that I’ve discussed before and the DAI report addresses directly.

There are many problems with the operation of these registries, including that most people do not know of their existence or their specific requirements. Furthermore, some critics maintain it is not in keeping with normative human behavior to expect anyone – man or woman – to register somewhere after every sexual encounter, in case a pregnancy may occur. Their effectiveness has also been called into question because their existence is rarely advertised and they are state-based, so locating a father can be complicated if the mother and father do not reside in the same state or the baby is placed for adoption in a different state.

In my writing about adoption and PFRs, I’ve had many occasions over the years to discuss those points.  For example, back in 2000, when I asked 100 men in Houston (office workers downtown and young men at the University of Houston) if they’d ever heard of the Texas Paternity Registry, not one of them had.  When I asked the state Department of Health what its budget for publicizing the registry was, the answer, like the number of men who’d heard of it, was zero.  Unsurprisingly, just 0.4% of births to unmarried women that year had a father who’d filed forms with the state’s registry.

The point is made far more amusingly here by Erik Smith whose description of his attempts to come to grips with the Ohio PFR in 2003 provide a fine sense of what faces single fathers.  The title of the piece “The Ohio Putative Father Registry – the WHAT?” gives a taste of the whole.

I’ll have more to say on this tomorrow.

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