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Fathers' rights in custody, adoption get lawmakers' focus

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 6:18 p.m. MST

“We need to get with the times,” agreed Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, the sponsor of HB308, which would require an unmarried woman to notify the biological father if she decides to put the child up for adoption.

That bill and a similar one, SB55, are motivated by a Utah Supreme Court decision last month that a Colorado father was improperly denied a say in his infant daughter's adoption.

Salt Lake adoption attorney Wes Hutchins said Utah's laws invite "forum shopping" among single pregnant women looking a favorable place for an adoption and allow women to hide from out-of-state birth fathers. The state's current laws are confusing, and HB308 would bring them in compliance with recent court decisions, he added.

But such notification measure would only apply to about 1 percent of unmarried biological fathers, said Fred Riley, a former commissioner of LDS Family Services, who has 30 years experience handling adoptions. And the letter of notification could invade their privacy by potentially revealing their sexual activities to their wives or families, Riley said. Not all men who father children by an unmarried partner are not married themselves.

“Notification and all those rules are a slippery slope,” he said. “This law currently works.” Riley said he was speaking as a private citizen.

Kevin Broderick, president-elect of the Utah Adoption Council, said some unmarried biological fathers sincerely want to be a part of their child’s life, but others are not as motivated.

On Friday, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted to hold off action on Watkins’ bill a third time, and it may be unlikely to go to the full House this session.

Broderick said he supports SB55, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

The bill is essentially similar to Watkins’ proposal, except that notification would be a voluntary option for the birth mother. Under both proposals, the father would have 30 days to take several steps to take responsibility for the child after notice is served.

But Weiler’s voluntary notification version received unanimous approval of the full Senate on Friday and now moves to the House.

Another bill that could affect custody arrangements is HB448, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. It would require a court to decide if a move of more than 75 miles, or out of state, by the custodial parent is in the best interest of the child, if the non-custodial parent objects to the move.

A ‘move-away,’ Dan Deuel of the American Parental Rights Action League, called it.

“That’s a tactic that’s often used to get rid of one parent,” he said.

The House Law Enforcement Committee is scheduled to consider the bill on Tuesday.

A family law attorney and 31-year veteran of the Legislature, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said various proposals to alter family law or custody rules come to the Legislature from year to year.

“One year the moms come up wanting more child support, and one year the dads come up wanting more visitation,” Hillyard said. “It’s a good thing they don’t come up at the same time.”

But in 2012 the issues of fathers’ rights in paternity and custody are getting particular emphasis, Hillyard said.

E-mail: lbrubaker@desnews.com