Sometimes, a story will appear that makes you think legislatures have no idea of the impact of certain laws being enacted. It is only when a statute is passed, and the rights of a state’s citizens restricted, that the full effect can be measured. It is hard to imagine just how anyone could have voted for a law where an unwed father only has fifteen days to “stake his claim” upon the birth of his child, or risk losing the child forever in an adoption proceeding.
But this is precisely what the State of Missouri did in 2004 and the result – Statute §453.030 – is by the far the most restrictive law impacting the rights of unwed fathers in the nation. In an age where DNA testing has affirmatively been used to free men and women from “Death Row” years after unjust incarceration, the Missouri Legislature has taken a seemingly opposite course, and restricted the length of time a father has to secure his rights to his children. Unwed fathers must register with the Putative Father Registry or file an action in Court to determine paternity and exert their rights. If they fail to do so, the child may never know his true father.
Most attorneys do not even deal with this law. It is for the relatively few who practice in the infrequent domain of adoption law and the sealed courtroom procedures of Juvenile and Family Court at the Commissioner level. Some feel that judges are inaccessible since their dockets are so full. Most times, they instill all discretion with the Commissioners. Transcripts are not really available for review since everything is taped. Some even believe that money from the prospective adoptive parents is the prerogative, not the rights of biological mothers and fathers who have most likely forsaken their children to the system so they can be cared for and protected. Obviously, the procedures for adoption are essential to ensure protection for those children rescued from abusive or dangerous situations. The process is designed to provide some level of permanency on an expedited basis through foster care and eventual adoption for those children.
Commissioners, no doubt, have seen many children of all ages and do the best they can to place them in loving homes. Unwed fathers, however, need to be made aware of these developments since conflicts between existing statutes now allow for adoptive parents to obtain permanent custody of children from unwed mothers if the unwed father does not start an action to establish his paternity, or register with the putative father registry within 15 days of the child’s birth. If the father fails in doing either of those, any history of supporting the child, being present at the birth of the child, transporting the child and making sure that the child is housed and fed becomes irrelevant. An unwed father loses all his rights if an adoption proceeding is initiated and the mother consents to the adoption. Short of obvious provisions (should fraud play a part in the father not knowing about the pregnancy,) the Missouri legislature, according to some, has fashioned an unconstitutional law. It not only violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and due process of the Fifth Amendment, but also is directly in conflict with other statutes that provide exceptions for a father who supports a child and is involved in his life. DNA tests establishing paternity have become irrelevant in many Missouri courts since the delayed determination fails under the two-prong test of §453.030.
The presumed father becomes just an average citizen. With family law cases overloading dockets across the state, some believe the courts are expediting cases and ignoring scientific evidence while still stating that are acting in the “best interest of the child.” The legislature may have thought this law would solve the problem of delays associated with unwed mothers wanting to give up their child for adoption. The tragedy is they ignored the rights of biological fathers who would happy to provide a stable, loving home to their own child.