Finding Common Ground on Fathers

By Glenn Sacks and Robert Franklin

We believe society should treat fathers and mothers as equally important to the wellbeing of children. We welcome this opportunity to contribute to the Good Men Project Magazine’s Men’s Rights series, to highlight some specific challenges fathers face.

Our first issue concerns fathers and adoption or, more specifically, the way the adoption system and related family court proceedings disregard the love that fathers have for their children, and instead allow (and at times actively facilitate) their children’s adoption to strangers.

In the United States today there are roughly 425,000 children who do not have living or functional biological parents in their lives. Most of these children are in the foster care system. At the same time, there are only about 75,000 non-stepparent adoptions each year. Around the world there are millions of children without parents who live in grim, understaffed, underfunded orphanages. Compared to the demand for people to raise parentless children in the U.S. and worldwide, qualified adoptive parents are in very short supply.

Given that, one would think that public policy would strive to ensure that as many of those kids got adopted into loving homes as possible. Instead, we often do the opposite—we deny capable unwed fathers the right to raise their own children. These children are instead given against the fathers’ will to adoptive couples. Beyond the terrible injustice to the father and every child with a fit father onto whom we force adoption, we are also denying needy children the opportunity to be raised by loving adoptive parents.

Part of the problem is the Putative Father Registries that 29 states employ. Officially, the PFRs are intended to provide legal recognition to the biological father of a child, provided the father registers within a limited (usually 30 day) time-frame. Fathers who register are then to be notified if the mother decides to put their children up for adoption. However, regardless of the PFRs’ official intent, the result is to prevent fathers from being able to assert their rights to parent their newborn children.

Here’s how they work: if an unmarried man fathers a child, he must file a form with the state bureau of vital statistics or other agency. But if he doesn’t, and the mother places the child for adoption, the father is not entitled to notice of the termination of his parental rights. His child is taken without his knowledge, regardless of his desire and ability to care for it. In many states, Putative Father Registries are a closely guarded secret. Texas, for example, does not budget money to publicize its registry. Not surprisingly, men are almost entirely unaware of its existence or of its effect on their parental rights.

California has no PFR, but it too undercuts the rights of single fathers whose children are placed for adoption. According to the California Supreme Court, an unmarried father must "physically bring the child into his home" and care for it, in order to retain his parental rights. Needless to say, that’s impossible to do when his child is living with adoptive parents.

In the recent cases of Kevin O’Day in Utah, John Wyatt in Virginia, 17-year-old Christian Diaz in California, and Benjamin Wyrembek in Ohio, the fathers believed, up until shortly before their children’s birth, that they would soon be the active, hands-on dads they wanted to be. But they were wrong. In each case, the mothers managed to turn the children over to adoption agencies and adoptive parents without the fathers’ knowledge.

In two of those cases (O’Day and Diaz), the fathers lost their children for good. It took Wyrembek three years of bitter litigation to obtain the return of his son. (That process has just ended by the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusing to grant the adoptive parent’s writ of certiorari.) Wyatt still awaits a decision on whether he will lose his daughter.

In none of those cases was there any allegation that the father is unfit. Rather, the adoption agencies were allowed to play a largely successful game of legal hide-and-seek in which the longer they kept the child away from his or her father, the less chance there was that a court would void the adoption and give the father custody.

The second issue we raise concerns the child welfare/foster care system. Fathers and Families is aware that mothers are sometimes mistreated by the child welfare system, and has been involved in legislative efforts to improve the system for both mothers and fathers. This particular injustice, however, mostly affects fathers and their children.

The heartbreaking Melinda Smith case, in which a San Diego father and daughter were needlessly separated by the foster care system for over a decade, is a good example. Smith was born to an unwed couple in 1988. Her father, Thomas Marion Smith, a former Marine and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, saw Melinda often and paid child support. When the girl was 4, her mother abruptly moved away without leaving a forwarding address, taking the girl with her.

Two years later, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services received two complaints of child abuse against Melinda’s mother. Though the social worker for the case noted in the file that Thomas was the father, he was never contacted, and his then 6-year-old daughter was placed in the foster care system.

Thomas—whose fitness as a father was never impugned nor legally questioned—continued to receive and pay his child support bills. Authorities refused to disclose his daughter’s whereabouts, and didn’t even inform him that his daughter had been taken by the County. Smith employed private investigators and attorneys to try to find Melinda and secure visitation rights, but he eventually ran out of money.

Rather than allowing Smith to raise his own daughter, the system shuttled Melinda through seven different foster care placements. An understandably angry child, her outbursts led authorities to house her in a residential treatment center alongside older children convicted of criminal activity—when she was only 7 years old.

Melinda says that during this period she was told that her father was a "deadbeat dad" who had abandoned her. When Melinda was 16, she told an investigating social worker that the "most important thing" for her was to find her dad. Moved by her story, the social worker began searching for Melinda’s father—and found him in one day. In 2005, Thomas and Melinda were finally reunited.

Unfortunately, the Smith case is no aberration. When a mother and father are divorced or separated, and a child welfare agency removes the children from the mother’s home for abuse or neglect, an offer of placement to the non-residential father, barring unfitness, should be automatic. Yet the Urban Institute’s 2006 report, "What About the Dads? Child Welfare Agencies’ Efforts to Identify, Locate, and Involve Nonresident Fathers," presents a shocking finding: when fathers inform child welfare officials that they would like their children to live with them, the agencies seek to place the children with their fathers only 15% of the time.

Fathers can offer their children a sense of permanence, security, and emotional support that a foster family (or a succession of foster care placements) cannot provide. Many foster children are pushed out of their homes and into a tenuous existence when they turn 18 and the foster parents no longer receive state subsidies. Fathers could be a valuable source of long-term resources and sponsorship for these young adults.

Child welfare agencies often operate on the assumption that the fathers of the children they’ve taken away from their mothers are, like the mothers, unfit or uninterested in parenting. Yet many of these men are loving fathers who have been forced out of their children’s lives by mothers who denied visitation, moved away and/or hid the children, or employed spurious abuse charges.

"What About the Dads?" makes it clear that many child welfare workers treat fathers as an afterthought. The report found that even when a caseworker had been in contact with a child’s father, the caseworker was still five times less likely to know basic information about the father than about the mother. Just as with Thomas Smith, 20 percent of the fathers whose identity and location were known by the child welfare agencies from the opening of the case were never even contacted.

These policies are harmful and misguided. One shudders to think how many little Melinda Smiths are lost in the foster care system right now—being raised by strangers, and denied their father’s love.

There are myriad ways in which the family law system separates decent loving fathers from their children, and the above are merely two examples. Regardless of our varied beliefs, fathers being allowed to step up and raise and nurture their children should be something that all of us support.