In Pennsylvania, terminating a father’s rights can be as easy as one, two, three.
In this case, the Superior Court outlines the steps a mother needs to take to rid the child of a pesky father for the purposes of placing the child for adoption (Leagle, 7/27/11). Hint: the procedure works particularly well if the father is poor.
The child’s father, S.G. and mother, R.B. lived together for a time and conceived a child. That was in the summer of 2009, but the pair broke up shortly after that, with R.B. moving out of their residence in November. “A few weeks later,” R.B. went to court and requested and received a “protection from abuse” order (PFA) against S.G, alleging that he behaved violently and threateningly against her and her child by a previous relationship. As far as the court’s opinion indicates, S.G. was not present at the hearing on the PFA, although he later pled guilty to “harassment” and received yet another no-contact order.
The original PFA expires December 10, 2011, which suggests it’s a two-year order.
Meanwhile, R.B. refused to let S.G. know where she was or provide him any contact information.
Shortly before the child was to be born in late April, 2010, R.B. contacted Bethany Christian Services about placing the newborn for adoption. Bethany then contacted S.G. who informed them that he did not agree to the adoption and would seek custody of the child after it was born. The adoption agency then bowed out saying it didn’t take part in custody disputes.
But sadly for S.G., he’d lost his job and was in such dire financial straits that his telephone service was disconnected. He told Bethany that he intended to hire a lawyer to seek custody, but the attorney’s fee was $2,500, so he never did.
Four months after the child’s birth, the adoption agency contacted R.B. and told her that by law, enough time had passed that she could then terminate S.G.’s rights and place the child for adoption. So Bethany went to court to terminate S.G.’s rights to his son.
The trial court refused to terminate his rights, but the Superior Court reversed it with instructions to terminate S.G.’s rights. Here’s why:
It seems that, under Pennsylvania law, a father must do certain things in order to preserve his rights to a newborn child. If he fails, he will lose his parental rights if,
In the case of a newborn child, the parent knows or has reason to know of the child’s birth, does not reside with the child, has not married the child’s other parent, has failed for a period of four months immediately preceding the filing of the petition to make reasonable efforts to maintain substantial and continuing contact with the child and has failed during the same four-month period to provide substantial financial support for the child.
Notice that I’ve been referring to the termination of the “father’s” rights, whereas the statute uses the gender-neutral “parent.” Could this be used against a mother? Well, it’s possible, but the likelihood is vanishingly small.
That’s because the section of the statute refers to a newborn and the person whose rights are to be terminated is the parent who doesn’t have possession of the child, i.e. the parent who’s required to maintain contact with the child and to pay support. As a practical matter, the person who walks out of the hospital with the child and keeps the child with her during the early part of it’s life, is the mother. Can it be otherwise? Yes, but what are the chances? How many fathers have used this section to terminate the parental rights of mothers? My guess is none.
Back to S.G. and R.B. At least two of the things the statute requires the father to do to avoid having his parental rights terminated – live with the mother and marry the mother – are strictly governed by her. He may passionately desire living with and marrying her, but if she’s not of the same mind, there’s nothing he can do about it.
S.G. didn’t provide support for the child – not because he didn’t want to but because he couldn’t. First, he didn’t have the money since he’d lost his job. Second, no one explains how he’s supposed to provide money when he’s under court order to have no contact with the mother.
And the same holds true for his obligation to “maintain substantial and continuing contact with the child.” Remember, the child is an infant; to contact the child, S.G. had to contact the mother. Had he done so, he’d have been put in jail for being in contempt of the PFA.
The Superior Court says he should have had his attorney contact the mother. But he couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. More to the point, the court never explains what having an attorney contact a four-month-old child would have accomplished. Surely the purpose of the statute is to promote father-child contact by terminating the rights of those who don’t see their children. Having an attorney go visit the child has nothing to do with that; it lifts form over function.
And it’s hard to miss the fact that the court never says that, had S.G. hired an attorney who then contacted R.B., its ruling would be different.
So the rules for single mothers wanting to terminate a father’s parental rights are straightforward. First, get a PFA. That seems pretty easy given that S.G. wasn’t present at the hearing when his liberty was so severely compromised. Oh, and when you’re getting your easy, do-it-yourself PFA, be sure to only allege actions on the part of the father that occurred in private and would produce no objective evidence of their occurrence. So things like shouting, threatening and minor domestic violence are best. That way, if he ever does get into court, it’ll be his word against yours.
Next, armed with your PFA, move to a place he doesn’t know about. That way, if he does want to violate the PFA and see his child, he can’t. He also can’t send support to a person whose whereabouts he doesn’t know.
Third, do your best to obscure your delivery date. The PFA prohibits him from being anywhere near when his child is born, but the birth date begins his four-month time frame in which to attempt to secure his parental rights. No, if you’re trying to cut the dad out of his child’s life, it’s best to leave him in the dark about just when the child was born.
As I said, those steps work particularly well when Papa is poor. Dads with a little in the bank can hire attorneys who presumably know the law, and that can be so inconvenient to a mother who just wants to get a child and its father out of her life.
Again, this statute is aimed directly at fathers, not mothers. In Pennsylvania as in so many states, the rights of single parents depend on possession of the child and mothers are almost invariably the parents in possession. That means they exercise effective control over fathers’ rights.
The case of S.G. and R.B. is just the latest of countless similar cases in which laws and courts bend over backwards to separate fathers from their children.