Lois M. Collins: 'Responsible Father Registry' could help children of unwed parents

Published: Tuesday, June 25 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Babies are entitled to loving parents. Anything that helps that happen, whether birth parents or adoptive, is worth considering.

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Two U.S. senators are joining forces across the political aisle to propose legislation creating what they call a national "Responsible Father Registry."

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla,, introduced their effort last week. They call it the "Protecting Adoption and Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Act of 2013."

A similar bill is being proposed in the House.

The majority of states have a similar statewide registry, but this would take the idea national. The designs vary a bit across the states, but the idea is that a "putative father" protects his right to have a relationship with a child by registering. Unmarried women who have a baby have traditionally had the power to give a child up for adoption or raise the child without much interference, especially if the father of the child didn't know about the baby. This way, someone who could be a father, whether he knows for sure or not, could register.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has explained unmarried fathers' rights this way: "Historically, unmarried fathers have had fewer rights with regard to their children than either unwed mothers or married parents. Over the past several decades, unmarried fathers have challenged termination of their parental rights under the 14th Amendment in cases in which birth mothers relinquished their children for adoption. In a series of cases involving unmarried fathers, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional protection of such a father's parental rights where he has established a substantial relationship with his child. The court found that the existence of a biological link between a child and unmarried father gives the father the opportunity to establish a substantial relationship, which is defined as the father's commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood, as demonstrated by being involved or attempting to be involved in the child's upbringing."

Still, it said, each state has "almost complete discretion" to determine the rights of unmarried fathers whose paternity hasn't been established when it comes to ending their parental rights or adoptions. This is one way for someone who might have fathered a child to prevent that from happening.

Proponents say that because so many relationships in a child's life cross state lines, it's important to have a national registry. States right now have no mechanism to see if a putative father has registered in other states. There's also not a good way for that man to figure out in other states besides his own where he might need to register.

"By establishing a national registry, we can better ensure that any father has the chance to be involved in the life of a child he may have fathered," Landrieu said in a statement. "This bill would also provide protection to families going through the adoption process by preventing a father who did not register his interest from disrupting the placement of a child into a loving family."

It's not a matter that would affect just a few people. Increasingly, the parents of newborns are not married and the numbers continue to rise. More than half of moms younger than 30 have their first child without marrying — a sequence long entrenched among disadvantaged Americans that is now moving through those with high school degrees and even some college. That brings up a lot of challenges for the children besides just those of paternal identification and rights. Study after study shows children's lives are more stable when their parents are married.

Registering would allow the father to be notified when an adoption or termination of parental rights occurs. If he doesn't register, in some of the states, by law the man has no claim to a child. Registering doesn't guarantee his claim, though.

Proponents of such registries say they also eliminate the chance that adoptions will be derailed by the appearance of a previously unknown father who claims a right to the child. Critics say that, among other things, it cuts out people who for various reasons may not be able to register on time.

Babies are entitled to loving parents. Anything that helps that happen, whether birth parents or adoptive, is worth considering.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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