I’ve criticized states many times for their reliance on putative father registries to facilitate adoptions. Amazingly, those laws place the onus on unmarried men to, in some way, figure out if they’ve fathered a child and, if so, and if Mom places it for adoption, to take the necessary steps to assert their parental rights to stop the adoption and gain custody of the child. No requirement is placed on the mother to inform the father about his child, even though she’s the one who knows about it.
Plus, he’s required to file a form with the state’s PFR even though, few states make any effort to let men know (a) that it is, (b) what it is or (c) its potential impact on their parental rights. More amazingly still, PFR states have the gall to claim that those statutes exist to “allow unmarried fathers to assert their rights,” when in fact the registries exist for one reason and one reason only – to remove fathers from the adoption process.
So this case is an excellent counterpoint to PFRs. In re Adoption of C.L. graphically demonstrates the justice served by states without them. In a later post, I’ll compare the Kansas Supreme Court’s analysis of the case with similar ones in PFR states and the differences are clear.
But even in Kansas, it was a near thing. The state’s highest court refers repeatedly to all the hurdles placed in the way of the father’s efforts to establish paternity and get custody of his child.
Mom and Dad (neither is named) had an off-again-on-again sexual relationship, but weren’t married. She became pregnant, but never informed him of it. (She claims she didn’t know she was pregnant until she gave birth at a hospital.) Mom contacted KCSL adoption agency and two days later signed a relinquishment of her parental rights. The agency handed the child to an unnamed adoptive couple who lived in the Kansas City area.
Melinda Kline, of KCSL, telephoned Father to tell him there was a child who may be his and to encourage him to sign a relinquishment of his parental rights. He declined to do so, which triggered KCSL to file a suit for adoption in Wyandotte County. Three days later, Father’s attorney filed his paternity action in Shawnee County requesting a DNA test and, if Father had in fact sired the child, custody.
The adoption agency objected to the paternity action and, since its case had been filed first, the paternity action was stayed and all proceedings went forward in Wyandotte County. DNA testing found that there was a 99.99% probability that Father had sired the child. All along, the adoptive parents, Mother and KCSL had done everything in their power to obstruct Father’s access to his son.
Here’s just a sampling of their tactics:
By chance, Father had contacted mother while she was in the hospital giving birth, but she failed to tell him about his child and instead suggested she’d had surgery for some unspecified condition. In order to be the first to file, the adoption agency made a series of false statements under oath to the effect that Father had known about the child all along and failed to support Mother during her pregnancy and had abandoned her and the child. Astonishingly, the date of first hearing in the case was established 32 days ahead of time, but Father wasn’t told about it until three days before and his attorney was never told. KCSL refused to tell Father who the mother of his child was, where she was, who the adoptive parents were, where they were or where his child was. They then proceeded to criticize him in court for failing to ascertain those things and visit the child and develop a relationship with him. They also criticized him for failing to pay support to the adoptive parents. Into the bargain, when Father asked Kline if he could visit his son, she told him that was "usually dependent on trust with the adoptive family." That of course wasn’t true.
Despite all that (or because of it), the trial court terminated Father’s rights finding that he had failed to “make reasonable efforts to support or communicate with his child.” The appellate court agreed, but the Supreme Court rightly reversed both of them. The trial court managed to reach that conclusion by frankly ignoring all the evidence that contradicted its preferred outcome.
The Court summed up this behavior thus:
In short, throughout the brief period Father knew about his son, a series of calculated obstructions were placed between him and his child in what was already a difficult circumstance. And each barrier consistently put him in an inferior position that required him to strategically or creatively react to avoid forfeiting his parental rights without any demonstrated willingness from the prospective adoptive parents or KCSL to actually include Father in C.L.'s life. Indeed, the record would reasonably suggest given their experience in these matters that KCSL and the attorney representing the prospective adoptive parents well understood any facilitation of Father's involvement would stymie the adoption outcome they sought.
Crucially, the Kansas Supreme Court recognized the reality of what happened, who had the power to affect the outcome and which side rightly has the burden of proof.
Simply put, these were "the actions of a father who is attempting to maintain a relationship with his child, not the actions of a father who is neglecting his child." (Emphasis added.) Baby Girl P., 291 Kan. at 434. To hold otherwise would encourage those with another interest to place a "series of hurdles" between a putative father and his child to increase the likelihood of a successful adoption. 291 Kan. at 433. The record in this appeal certainly suggests that possibility. Termination of parental rights should not be determined by which side schemes to be shrewder or more strategic.
That “series of hurdles” is what we see in all too many cases in which a profit-driven adoption agency and a self-interested mother seek to remove a fit and willing father from a child’s life. And of course the biggest and most effective of those hurdles is a putative father registry that turns fathers’ parental rights on their head for the purpose of enriching the adoption industry at the expense of children.