Recently I’ve written about the efforts of adoption agencies and lawyers to take children from loving fathers and place them in adoptive care. In Ohio, Benjamin Wyrembek fought for three years and finally got custody of his son. In California, 17-year-old Christian Diaz wasn’t so lucky. Two weeks ago, a court in Bakersfield terminated his parental rights because, under California law, he had to “take the child into his home” in order to gain custody.
That’s a requirement that only unmarried fathers must meet; mothers, whether married or single need not and neither must married fathers. Despite the fact that 40% of children are now born out of wedlock, California continues to treat single fathers differently from all other parents.
Christian Diaz was unable to comply with the law for the simple reason that the mother of his child didn’t permit him to. Despite his having prepared for his child’s arrival, she managed to elude him when it was time for her to deliver the child. When he arrived at the hospital, she told security personnel that he wasn’t the father, despite knowing that he was. He was escorted from the premises. The space for “father” on the birth certificate is blank. Christian Diaz has only seen his child in photos.
This caseis remarkably similar to that of Diaz, but with a happy ending.
Roberto Alvarez of North Carolina was just 22, unmarried and unemployed when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant. Despite all those shortcomings, Alvarez was certain that he wanted to be a father to his child and he told his girlfriend so.
He moved in with his mother, got a job and eagerly anticipated the arrival of his son. But he never imagined the lengths the mother would go to thwart his paternal ambitions.
She mentioned wanting to place the child for adoption, but Alvarez made it clear to her that he would care for the boy and give her all the visitation she wanted. Here’s how Alvarez tells it:
My baby’s due date was March 5. I told his mother every day to let me know when she went in to labor; I would be there. I could not miss my son’s birth. I also shared with her that I wanted to name him Ryan, after my brother. On Sunday, March 1st at 10 AM, I received the call I had been waiting for. However, instead of rushing to the hospital, I sat at home, in shock. My son had already been born. She had gone into labor the previous Friday night and had him on Saturday.
She and her family had picked out his name. She would not tell me where they were or how I could visit them. I called the hospital where I thought they were and was told the mother was not a patient. Apparently her name was incorrect in their computer and I was not on the birth certificate.
(As a sidelight, back in the late 90s, I investigated a case in North Carolina in which a father tried to stop his child’s adoption. There too, the hospital played a key role in coming between him and his daughter. It told him it had no patient with his girlfriend’s name and mysteriously “lost” the birth certificate. At the time, in order to prevent the adoption in court, his attorney had to attach a copy of the birth certificate to his original petition. His inability to do that proved fatal to the father’s cause.)
In short order, the parents who wanted to adopt Alvarez’s son had vanished with the little boy. He eventually located them in Georgia and began fighting the adoption in court with the help of a strongly committed attorney.
After 21 months in court, Alvarez prevailed. He proved that he had done everything required of him under North Carolina law which, fortunately for him, is a bit more father-friendly than the law in California that Christian Diaz faced.
And then (wouldn’t you know it?) the mother, having lost her bid to place the child in an adoptive home, decided she wanted full custody. And the court agreed with her. This was a mother who had tried to remove her baby from her life forever. By contrast, the father was so committed to his son that he went into debt and fought for almost two years to keep his child in his life. So who did the court award primary custody to? The mother of course.
But it didn’t last.
Throughout the year it took to get back into court for a custody hearing it became clear that his mother was not giving him the quality of care he was receiving with me. She acted erratic and unstable and cared more about hurting me than doing what was best for him. Power over him was power over me, and that is what she wanted. She and her family continued to act as if I was an unfit parent, as if I was the same partying, irresponsible person that I had been before I learned that I was becoming a father. They were acting as if I was stupid and did not know my own child.
I finally got my chance to be heard in court, after several continuances. As the biological mother, her mother and her father spoke on the stand, it became clear that while in her custody she was not the main caregiver for my son. My lawyer asked her mother to take us through each day of a typical week in their home. My son’s mother was not the one waking up with him, she was often at school or work during the day, and she was only home to put him to sleep one night a week. The judge saw that she had shut me out of my baby”s life with no real regard for who else was caring for him. He acknowledged that I made every effort to be with my son as much as possible and was the one actually caring for him when he was with me.
Alvarez was awarded primary custody and he tells me that he and the mother now share parenting time about equally. She does not pay him any child support.
There’s now a lot of research into young, poor, unmarried fathers and it turns out they’re not the dismissive, uncaring louts that popular culture would have us believe. Researcher Kathryn Edin at Harvard and many others analyzing the data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing project have learned that these fathers are highly motivated to play an active role in their children’s lives.
If Roberto Alvarez is any indication, I’d say they’re right.