Trial Court Declares Florida’s Putative Father Registry Unconstitutional

This case out of Florida offers a tantalizing hint of what may be to come. The appellate case itself is almost meaningless, but what the trial court did is promising.

The trial court overturned Florida’s Putative Father Registry as violating the father’s rights to due process of law and his right to privacy. For those of you who don’t slavishly read every word of (are there such people?), putative father registries are handy-dandy devices whereby states get around single fathers’ parental rights in adoption cases. The laws of the 29 or so states with PFRs require single fathers to inform the state just in case a woman with whom they have intercourse becomes pregnant, carries the child to term and places it for adoption. In that event, the court handling the adoption will check with the state’s PFR to see if the dad has registered. If he hasn’t, then the adoption can proceed without notice to him.

Now, in most states, PFRs are closely guarded secrets. Few states do anything to publicize them with the result that very few fathers sign up. Last year I linked to a great article by a young paralegal student in Ohio who’d heard about the state’s PFR in class. His adventures in attempting to locate the PFR and find out how to register made for both amusing and enraging reading.

So, with dads out of the loop, adoptions are easier to finalize. One of the major problems with the whole concept is that good qualified dads are tossed aside along with all the others. That means that, by bypassing those good dads, states are forcing adoption on children who don’t need it. In the process, they’re denying adoptive parents to those children in foster care and orphanages who desperately do need parents. Thus do PFRs accomplish the opposite of what they’re meant to.

I’ve read countless cases in which PFRs were used to deny their children to highly qualified and motivated dads. Often enough, it’s because the mother refused to tell him about his child, and the case linked to is no exception. In it the mother and the father had a brief fling while she was involved with another man. When she turned up pregnant, she told the long-term boyfriend the child was his. The “fling” was in the Navy, had shipped out and knew nothing of the pregnancy.

Although the judges writing the opinion are far too tactful to mention such tawdry matters, I suspect what happened was that, once the child was born, the man who thought he was the dad said something like “that kid doesn’t look like me,” and out spilled the beans. In any case, they did genetic testing and sure enough, the child was the Naval petty officer’s. Shortly thereafter, he and mom got married.

And it was that marriage that stopped the adoption that the mother and the other man had started. Likewise, it was that marriage that allowed the appellate court to avoid addressing the constitutional arguments the trial court had made.


the trial court ruled that [the Putative Father Registry statute] could not be applied constitutionally in [the biological father’s] case, opining that “to find that [the father] had given up all rights to his child under these circumstances would be a violation of his due process and privacy rights.” In reaching this conclusion, the trial court reasoned that the “right to have a relationship with one’s own child is too important a legal right to forfeit” based on a statutory presumption that unmarried men who engage in sexual relations are on notice of the obligation to file a claim of paternity with the Registry in order to protect their paternal rights.

Many of us have been arguing the same things for years. It’s only a trial court and it’s only in one state, so by itself the case doesn’t mean much. But there are far more out-of-wedlock pregnancies now than when the first PFR passed constitutional muster back in 1979. That, together with the fact that PFRs make a mockery of the concept of due process of law, just might get courts to rethink their past acceptance of statutory schemes that deny fathers their rights and deny parents to children who need them.

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