The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a Virginia father’s appeal to overturn the adoption of his daughter, a child known as “Baby Emma,” finding he did not meet required deadlines for asserting his parental rights.Utah's law is not that unusual in putting up near-impossible hurdles for unmarried fathers interested in parenting their children when the birth mother wants to place the child for adoption.
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In Virginia, Wyatt said he was not surprised by the decision.
“This is what Utah does,” he said. “They steal people’s babies. It is like a big game to these people.”
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Jeri Wyatt, John’s mother, said she was “just heartbroken. We’re not stopping and we’re going to fight like hell to get that baby back. They are not going to steal this baby because that’s all it is — a kidnapping. Shame on Utah for crafting biased, unconstitutional laws against unmarried biological fathers. The state of Utah has been doing this for years and they’ll continue doing it, and somebody has to stop it.”
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Utah’s statute requires unmarried biological fathers to follow a strict time frame, regardless of where they reside or where a child is born, to preserve any right to object to an adoption. The biological father must show he did not and could not have known an adoption was being considered; begin court proceedings to establish his paternity before a birth mother gives consent for an adoption to proceed; and demonstrate he is fully committed to assuming his parental responsibilities, such as paying for pregnancy related expenses.
At least half a dozen unmarried biological fathers have waged unsuccessful efforts to stop adoptions in Utah. In one case, the court found a father was on notice when his pregnant girlfriend told him she was in Utah; in another, the court said a father failed to adequately show how he would provide for a child.
Since Lehr v. Robertson, from the U.S. Supreme Court, approved a state requirement that the father file in the state's paternity registry as the exclusive way to assert a desire to parent, that's pretty much the default rule in most states. The facts in Lehr are telling; the mother and her new husband were aware than the bio dad opposed the adoption by the new husband, the bio dad had filed a paternity action in another court, and the judge of the adoption court knew that he had done so. Still, since he failed to file in the paternity registry, the Supreme Court said he had failed to grasp his opportunity interest in being a parent.
So to grasp his opportunity interest in being a parent, an unmarried father must file in a state's paternity registry. How many people do you suppose know this? And where to file? For this Virginia dad, where the sex happened in Virginia and the birth happened in Virginia, how is he to know to file in Utah?
And what about the father who doesn't know the woman he slept with is pregnant, much less contemplating adoption? The courts say sex is notice!
So I tell my male students that they should send in notice to the paternity registry in all 50 states any and every time they have sex with a woman they're not married to if they want to protect their rights as potential fathers! Of course, that's a pretty ridiculous thing to do, and even if you have no sympathy for the hound-dog bio father, think how it violates the privacy rights of the women who are not pregnant or contemplating adoption when he dutifully sends in his postcard claiming paternity in a sex-as-notice world.
The bio father can also grasp his opportunity interest by having a relationship with the child, something a little difficult to do in newborn adoption, huh? He can also prepare himself to parent -- setting up a nursery, putting the child on his insurance, etc. But he has to know she's pregnant, right? He can also be financially and emotionally supportive of the mother during the pregnancy, but that requires her to cooperate, and sometimes she doesn't want to. And the biggie -- he can marry her! Again, something she may not be inclined to do. So a lot of these things are kind of out of the father's hands. We set standards that are pretty difficult to meet, especially in newborn adoption.
When we talk about birth mothers in my Adoption Law class, I ask the students to give me the first words that come to mind when they hear the phrase "birth mother." I usually get words like loving, young, overwhelmed -- generally sympathetic words. When I ask for the same thing for "birth father," I get uncaring, disinterested, not nurturing. Those words say it all, right? That attitude explains our legal treatment of birth fathers. We assume he's not interested in parenting or competent to parent. No problem, then, in having laws that ignore his role completely.
Those laws won't change so long as the attitude remains the same.