National Putative Father Registry: A Bad Idea Promoted by Adoption Lawyers

March 29th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Sigh.  Journalists are so incurious.  Why did they go into the profession of journalism if not because they value facts and the communication thereof to others?  It’s hard to know, but so often articles we read in major publications seem to be little more than slightly rephrased press releases by advocacy groups.  Whatever happened to getting “the other side of the story?”  Often, the one-sided nature of articles reflects nothing more than the political/social biases of the particular publication.  So when, say, The New York Times does a piece on family issues, you can bet the reporter hasn’t contacted anyone who might contradict the paper’s pre-set narrative of virtuous mothers and uncaring fathers.

I guess something like that is happening here (Washington Post, 3/17/13).  Catherine Ho takes on the subject of putative father registries and clearly did no more research into them than possibly glancing at a putative father registry website or maybe one of an association of adoption lawyers.  I know this because her description of putative father registries is not only the boilerplate off sites like those, but most tellingly, gets the information wrong in exactly the way those sites typically do.

For readers who haven’t seen pieces I’ve written on these scandalous inventions, putative father registries are entities designed to remove fathers from the process of adopting children.  They’re located in the bureaucracy of states, usually in the Department of Health, perhaps in the Bureau of Vital records.  A registry is created by state law that requires every unmarried man who believes he may have fathered a child to file a form with the registry laying claim to any such child.  If he does that and and a child was in fact conceived and the mother carries it to term and places the child for adoption, the father is entitled to notice of the adoption and an opportunity to assert his parental rights.  Failure to file the form means the court is free to finalize the adoption without telling him.

So, if you’re single man and you have sex with a woman, you need to file the requisite form with the state.  On it you’ll identify yourself and the woman and, depending on the state, the approximate birth date of the child.

Adoption lawyers love putative father registries because it makes their job so much easier than it used to be.  That’s because, in the not-too-distant past, fathers’ rights in adoption cases were very different from today’s.  Generally speaking, if the state wanted to bypass the father in the adoption process, the mother or the adoptive parents had to show that the biological father had “abandoned” the child, i.e. he’d made no effort to provide for the mother during pregnancy or for the child after it was born.  That wasn’t always easy.

Along came the 1980s and with them a welter of cases in which “abandonment” had been proven, the adoption finalized and then, sometimes years later, Dad showed up demanding his child.  It seems he hadn’t so much abandoned the child as the child’s very existence had been craftily kept from him by the mother.  Either that or she’d doggedly denied him any opportunity to be a father to the child and then claimed abandonment.  Sometimes these fathers actually prevailed in court and, well, we can’t have that.

What’s a state to do?  When faced with the dilemma of, on one hand, honoring a father’s desire to be a parent to his child, or on the other, honoring a mother’s paternity fraud and interference with his paternal rights, what do you do?  It fell to New York to come up with the putative father registry.  By the stroke of the legislative pen, the onus was placed on unmarried fathers to not only know about their children but do something about mothers’ efforts to keep them out of the lives of their children.

Of course states could have placed the burden on the mother of simply telling the truth.  That would have meant telling the adoption court who the father was.  It would have meant allowing him to exercise his parental rights if he so desired.  And of course it would have meant handing the child over to the dad, assuming he proved himself to be a fit parent, if that’s what he wanted.  All of that would have been sensible.  It would have encouraged women to tell the truth instead of lie.  It would have meant children could live in the care of fit fathers who desired to care for them.  And above all it would have meant that only children who needed to be adopted would be.  The state would not play the destructive game of forcing adoption on children who didn’t need it.

So, given all those salutary results of requiring single mothers to identify the father of a child she wished to place for adoption, of course states did the opposite.  Starting with New York in the 1970s, states began passing putative father registry laws until now, about 34 have some version of a PFR.

Do men know about them?  Generally speaking, they don’t.  No one to may knowledge has done a definitive study, but when I did a quick and dirty poll of 100 men in Houston back in 2000, not one had ever heard of the Texas Paternity Registry.  And I was surveying office workers in downtown Houston and students at the University of Houston, i.e. men who are better educated and better informed than the average.

So I asked the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics what the budget was for publicizing the registry and educating men about its consequences.  The answer?  Zero.  There was no budget for that.

Still, the law specified that forms and information be maintained in a variety of places men might turn up.  Those places included hospitals, adoption agencies, justices of the peace, marriage license offices and the like.  So I looked around.  I went to a Justice of the Peace office posing as a single man wanting to file with the Texas Paternity Registry.  No one knew what I was talking about.  Ditto the marriage license office.  Ditto the hospitals I called.  Only an adoption agency had a clue about what the registry was or what I had to do to file with it.

If you think Texas is unique, read this delightful and infuriating peace by a young Ohio man who, while being educated to be a paralegal, learned of the state’s putative father registry and set out to protect his parental rights.

The point of putative father registries is to get the biological dad out of the process.  Doing so speeds adoptions of course, but it also forces adoption on children who don’t need it.  That in turn means children who do need adoptive parents do without.  Why?  Because there are far more children in foster care whose parents have had their rights terminated and therefore need adoption than there are adoptions in this country.  There are about 425,000 children in foster care who are legally ready to be adopted, but only about 75,000 “stranger” adoptions (i.e. not stepparent adoptions) in this country in a given year.

In short, putative father registries harm fathers and children.  They harm the fathers who are fit and want to care for the children; they harm the children who miss out on being raised by their dads and they harm the children in foster care who don’t get the parents they need.

But putative father registries are a boon to one group of people – those who make up the adoption industry, including adoption attorneys.  And in her article, it’s pretty clear that’s where Catherine Ho is getting her information when she reports on the move afoot to establish a national putative father registry.

    A Washington-based group representing adoption attorneys is continuing a quiet but steady quest to pass a law they say will better protect the parental rights of men who may have fathered children.

    The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, an association of 360 lawyers who work on legal issues surrounding adoption, has tapped lobbyist Michaela Sims of Chamber Hill Strategies to advocate for improvements in adoption laws. One of the group’s priorities in Washington is to reintroduce a bill that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) sponsored in the last Congress that would establish a national database known as a “putative father registry.”

    Currently, at least 34 states have registries where men can register their name and contact information into a confidential database so they can be notified of any attempts to terminate their parental rights, or of adoption proceedings for children they may have fathered. The idea of the registry is to give birth fathers a chance to assert their parental rights.

Put simply, that is not true.  Fathers have always had the opportunity to assert their rights in adoption cases.  True, mothers who so desired had little trouble evading those rights, but putative father registries affect all and are known to few are far worse.  After all, the number of mothers who seek to avoid notice to the father is pretty small.  But putative father registry laws apply to all single dads.

Adoption lawyers want to expand what’s proved to be a catastrophe in 34 states to the nation generally.  They want to do so because their pocketbooks will expand along with the law, if it’s passed.  Putative father registries have always been bad for dads and kids.  We need to squelch this nationalization scheme before it gets started.

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