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Proposed bill would penalize adoption agencies for fraudulent representations

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 15 2012 7:58 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — As state lawmakers consider possible amendments to the state adoption laws, one Utah man could learn as early as Thursday whether he can intervene in the adoption of his now 2-year-old son.

The adoption occurred without his knowledge or consent, despite his repeated representations to the birth mother of his intentions to co-parent the child, said attorney Wes Hutchins.

On Wednesday, the Utah Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, saw photographs of the man and an obviously pregnant woman who was carrying the man's child, Hutchins said.

The woman is depicted in photographs touring Temple Square with the biological father and his family on Dec. 29, 2009. The following day, the baby was born, unbeknownst to the biological father, Jake Strickland. Just over 24 hours later, the birth mother signed documents relinquishing her parental rights.

Strickland had been told by the birth mother that the baby would be delivered by C-section on Jan. 12, 2010, Hutchins said.

On Jan. 5, 2010, however, the woman told Strickland in a cell phone conversation that she had placed the baby with an adoptive couple, he said.

Strickland initiated a paternity claim the following day. He had not, however, registered with Utah's putative father registry during the pregnancy.

Strickland later learned that the woman was not legally divorced from her husband, according to press reports. Under the state Judicial Code, a married woman's husband is presumed to be the father of her child.

Strickland and his family have been engaged in a legal fight over the adoption for more than two years. Second District Court Judge David Hamilton could rule on the case as early as Thursday, said Strickland's mother, Jenny Graham.

Hutchins, a family law attorney now representing Strickland, told the legislative committee that many pregnant young women from other states come to Utah to place their babies for adoption because Utah law has weak protections for biological fathers.

Hutchins told lawmakers that some agencies even "coach" birth mothers what to tell biological fathers who inquire about the child's birth or their rights.

Among western states, few have as many paternal rights cases that go up to appellate courts, which suggest problems with Utah's laws, he said.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who is also an attorney, said it could also be construed that Utah's higher courts are more amenable to hearing such cases.

To that end, Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, has developed a legislative proposal to further regulate the activities of adoption agencies.

A draft discussed by state lawmakers Wednesday contemplates sanctions for adoption agencies or employees of such agencies who make fraudulent representations in connection with adoptions.

Agency licenses could be suspended, even revoked, according to the proposal. The proposal also includes a provision in which a party that challenges a fraudulent representation in connection with an adoption and prevails, can be awarded attorney fees and costs.

Under the proposed legislation, notice of an adoption must be provided to an unmarried biological father of a child six months old or younger.

McCay said that portion of the draft legislation raised concerns because adoptive parents need to know that an adoption, when finalized, is final.

"I think there is some value to the finality and getting the kid out of the middle of a fight," McCay said.

Hutchins, who told lawmakers that he has worked in family law for two decades, agreed that parents need that assurance.

He said he believes the attorney fees provision of the draft legislation would persuade any party against making false representations that could disrupt a placement.

Watkins asked the committee to take time to study the proposal and allow her to make further refinements before the interim committee takes any action.

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