Toward a National Putative Father Registry Database

By Beck, Mary | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Toward a National Putative Father Registry Database


Beck, Mary, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


In the United States, every third child is born to an unwed mother. (1) These children are relinquished for adoption at a greater rate than those born to married mothers. (2) Adoption of a child born to an unwed mother creates a quandary of how best to protect the parental rights of the father and the privacy rights of the mother while simultaneously securing the best interests of the child. Baby Jessica, Baby Richard, and Baby Emily were highly publicized court cases in the early 1990s where unmarried birth fathers contested the adoptions of newborns. The public felt strongly about state courts disrupting the adoptions of these children vis-a-vis the late assertion of their birth father's rights, but the United States Supreme Court declined to review the States' decisions in these cases. (3) In the wake of Baby Jessica, state legislatures, in an attempt to avert such disrupted adoptions, enacted putative father registries designed to mandate notice of adoptions to unwed fathers who file notice of intent to claim paternity with registries in the prescribed time. A State's putative father registry protects the rights of an unwed father and an adoptee within its State.

Recently, in the context of adoptions where interstate travel was used to thwart their efforts to assert paternity, two unwed fathers successfully sued in tort for intentional interference with their parental rights. (4) These costly torts have re-focused attention on the rights of unwed fathers in adoptions. Individual state putative father registries cannot protect the parties in such adoptions, because registration in the State of conception will not ensure notice of an adoption proceeding in another State.

This Article analyzes putative father registries and proposes federal legislation to create a national database that will enhance and connect the state and local registries. Issues and events leading to the development of registries are reviewed in Part I. Putative father registry mechanics and applicable case law are analyzed in Parts II and III. The case law examined includes unwed fathers' rights, in-state paternity registry contests, requests for impossibility exceptions exempting registry requirements, and tortious interference with parental rights. Part IV argues for a national putative father registry database and investigates avenues of federal participation and recommendations for specific legislation.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1972, the Supreme Court first upheld and defined the constitutional rights of men who fathered children out of wedlock. (5) In Stanley v. Illinois, the Court held that equal protection requires state law to treat the unmarried mothers and fathers of children similarly. (6) This heralded a societal shift away from deferring to the wishes of unmarried mothers.

Upholding the constitutional rights of unmarried fathers to their children does not assure that these men will assume parental responsibilities, however. Protecting paternal rights of unmarried fathers without requiring corresponding responsibilities fails to ensure permanent and stable parents for children because unmarried fathers who have no legally defined role in their children's lives have no legal requirement for custody or support. Consonant with enhancing parental responsibility of undefined and non-custodial parents, between 1984 and 1996 Congress passed legislation and established child support guidelines designed to increase the adequacy of child support sums (7) as well as enforcement of its payment. (8) The impact of child support legislation on adoption is not documented, but, unmarried fathers certainly factor into their adoption decision the nearly inescapable requirement to pay child support for at least eighteen years if the child is not adopted.

Adoption has evolved over time in response to these legal developments and to social trends as well. In the 1970s, the number of American adoptions decreased in association with the legalization of abortion and society's increasing acceptance of single motherhood.

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