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Unwed fathers fight for rights


Jeremiah Clayton Jones discovered that his former fiancee was pregnant just three weeks before she was ready to give birth, when an adoption-agency lawyer called and asked whether he would consent to have his baby adopted.

"I said absolutely not," said Jones, a 23-year-old Arizona man who met his ex-fiancee at Pensacola Christian College in Florida. "It was an awkward moment, hearing for the first time that I would be a father, and then right away being told, 'We want to take your kid away.' But I knew that, if I was having a baby, I wanted that baby."

Jones has never seen his son, now 18 months old. Instead, he lost his parental rights because of his failure to file with a state registry for unwed fathers - something he learned of only after it was too late.

Under Florida law, and that of many other states, an unmarried father has no right to withhold consent for adoption unless he has registered with the state putative father registry before an adoption petition is filed. And Jones missed the deadline.

At a time when one in three American babies is born to unwed parents, birth fathers' rights remain an unsettled area, a delicate balancing act between the importance of biological ties and the quick, undisrupted placement of babies whose mothers place them for adoption.

While women have the right to get an abortion or to have and raise a child without informing the father, courts have increasingly found that when birth mothers choose adoption, fathers who have shown a desire for involvement have rights too.

But to claim those rights most states require a father to put his name on a registry. While about 30 states have registries, they vary widely. In some, the father must actually claim paternity; in others, just the possibility of paternity. The deadlines may be five days after birth or 30, or any time before an adoption petition is filed.

And registries are a double-edged sword. Indeed, it remains an open question whether they serve more to protect fathers' rights or to protect adoptive parents, and the babies who have bonded with them, from custody battles with biological fathers.

"My specialty is contested adoptions, and the most common contest is where the mom wants to place the baby and the dad objects," said Martin Bauer, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, which is working for creation of a national registry. "Registries can protect men against birth mothers who won't disclose the father's name, or actively lie about his identity."

Adam Pertman, executive director of the nonprofit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, sees it differently. "It's all smoke and mirrors," he said. "How can registries work if no one's heard of them? And it's just not reasonable to expect that men will register every time they have sex."

In the early 1990s, the two-year fight over Baby Jessica and the four-year battle over Baby Richard highlighted the wrenching dramas of birth parents winning back custody of babies placed with adoptive parents shortly after birth. The widely publicized spectacle of those two children being taken from the arms of the only parents they had known raised a public outcry about the need for speedy, permanent placement.

While a few states have long had putative father registries, most were started in the past decade.

In many states, fewer than 100 men register each year - not surprising, adoption experts say, because most young men have never heard of registries or seen public service advertisements warning them to register if they might have fathered a child. One exception is Indiana, where men are notified of the registry as soon as a birth mother names them as the father, and 50 men a week register.

Adoption lawyers say some birth mothers refuse to identify the father, to forestall interference.

There are no statistics on the proportion of unmarried fathers interested in raising a baby the birth mother has relinquished. Putative father registries are not public. And because the baby is being adopted, child support from the father is generally not an issue.

University of Missouri law professor Mary Beck said the burden of registering should be the father's. "There are men who complain, 'What, I have to file for every woman I've had sex with?'" she said. "But men are on notice of possible pregnancy by virtue of having had sex, and the alternative is leaving it up to the women to chase them down."

Even for registered men, the system is far from perfect. Because the registries are state by state, the father's claim will not show up if he or the mother has moved - or the baby was surrendered for adoption in a different state specifically to avoid a challenge.

In one widely publicized case, Frank Osborne of North Carolina challenged his 5-month-old son's adoption in Utah. The Utah Supreme Court rejected his claim, but a dissenting judge found it unfair that Osborne could not prevent the removal of a child he had lived with, and supported, until the mother "unilaterally and clandestinely" brought the boy to Utah.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, plans to address that problem this year in the Proud Father Act, which would create a national registry.

"In a perfect world, everything would be linked so that everyone could find out if a man had registered or filed for paternity anywhere in the country," said Atlanta lawyer Jim Outman, who has consulted on the Landrieu legislation. "But in the real world, the left hand doesn't always know what the right hand is doing. If there's nothing in the records in their county, their state, how is an adoption agency supposed to know there's a father who's going to come forward in two years? There has to be some security for the adoptive parents and the child."

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