Recently, the Atlantic published a captivating story written by Syracuse University law professor Kevin Noble Maillard about the child custody case of Christopher Emanuel. The story exposes how the adoption system can potentially rob a caring and loving father of all his parental rights before he even knows what hit him.
Emanuel, a black South Carolina man, was dating a white woman in early 2013. She eventually became pregnant and the couple, seemingly in love, started planning a life together.
Unfortunately, things went awry when Emanuel was introduced to her parents. According to Emanuel, they were openly racist – even called him the N-word – and told him and their daughter they had no choice but to put the child up for adoption.
Nonetheless, the young couple still planned on staying together. Emanuel’s girlfriend assured him, over and over, that she wouldn’t put the baby up for adoption and that if it ever came to that, she would give the child to Emanuel.
Despite communicating daily, Emanuel noticed her growing increasingly distant and suspected something was wrong despite her assurances otherwise.
On February 22, 2014, Emanuel was served with papers by a private investigator notifying him that his child had been put up for adoption. She gave birth without telling him and now he was faced with a battle to win back custody of his daughter.
It appears Emanuel’s girlfriend intended on doing this all along. She met with the adoptive parents, a couple from California, and told them that the birthfather had no involvement in her life and was unfit to raise a child.
After filing an objection, Emanuel was able to win custody and the adoptive parents returned the baby on May 3. This was only possible because Emanuel registered with something called the South Carolina Responsible Father Registry, which “gives a man who has fathered a child with a woman he is not married to the right to be notified when an adoption or a termination of parental rights action occurs.”
Had Emanuel not registered, his girlfriend could have put the child up for adoption without him receiving any notification. Registering didn’t guarantee Emanuel custody, but it gave him a chance to make his case in court. In court, Emanuel’s daily text-message history with his girlfriend clearly showed he was invested in his girlfriend’s pregnancy and he intended to stay involved in the child’s life.
While it might sound crazy, there is a logical reason why a woman would have the right to give a child up for adoption without notifying the father. The concern is that a man could impregnate a woman and disappear, making it impossible for her to give up the child for adoption without his approval.
Putative-father registries enable a man to declare himself as the father before the baby is born. Thirty-three states currently have putative-father registries. To register, a man just needs to create an account and provide some basic information. Some require mail-in forms and others can be completed online.
There is currently no national registry, so a man must register in every state where the mother could give birth. (However, there are efforts to establish an interstate compact that would allow states to share information on putative-father registries.)
Ideally, these registries protect adoptive families by ensuring that adoptions are final and adoptive children are given a stable, permanent home. In the 1990s, there was a public outcry for speedy, permanent placement after the cases of Baby Jessica and Baby Richard. In those cases, both children were taken from the arms of the only parents they had known after their biological parents won custody years after their birth.
The registries also vary widely. In some, fathers must claim paternity. In others, they just need to claim the possibility of paternity. The deadlines can also range from 5 to 30 days after birth or any time before an adoption is filed, depending on the state.
However, the fatal flaw of putative-father registries is that basically no one knows they exist. In South Carolina, 30,000 children were born to unmarried mothers in 2014, but only 279 men registered. Data for other states with registries show similar trends.
It seems as if some sort of reform is needed for the adoption system. It is unclear whether the registries are designed more to protect adoptive families or unmarried fathers. In Emanuel’s case, an unmarried father was forced to battle to maintain any parental rights and the adoptive parents eventually had to return a child they had spent months raising and showering with affection.
To be fair, it is far from easy to find a balance between protecting the rights of fathers while also doing what is in the best interest of adoptive families.
At the very least, efforts need to be made to educate unmarried fathers about these registries. As with many areas of family law, men need to be aware that they are often at a disadvantage and need to be proactive to ensure their rights as fathers are protected.
“Even with the fairly obscure father registry, the law assumes men aren’t interested in children,” Emanuel wrote in a New York Times editorial.