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A Utah lawmaker wants the state to stop waiting for Congress to act on a national putative father registry and move ahead with an electronic, confidential registry that unwed fathers, adoption agencies and attorneys and potentially other states could use to make and search paternity filings in adoption cases.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, told members of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday the proposal is aimed at providing "equity and justice" to unwed fathers, particularly those from other states who want to be involved in a child's life but may not know where the mother plans to give birth and place the infant for adoption.
Some legal and adoption experts have advocated for a national putative father registry as the only way to protect unwed fathers' rights and interstate adoptions. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., made several attempts at legislation to create such a registry by law but has so far been unsuccessfully gained little support for the idea. At least one group Fathers & Families opposes such registries on grounds they which it sees as designed to make it more difficult for fathers to assert rights; the onus, the group believes, should be on a birth mother and an adoption agency to identify and provide notice to unwed fathers about an adoption plan
Utah is among 32 states with some form of a putative father registry that is maintained by a state agency or court, according to information given to the committee. But there is no consistency as far as what is required or when the father must act.
The Salt Lake Tribune found in 2011 that in most states, an unwed father must file only with the state agency that manages the registry. Utah, Idaho and Missouri require the unmarried father to both register and initiate a court action in order to have standing to contest an adoption. Some states such as Pennsylvania, home to one unwed father who currently has a case pending before the Utah Supreme Court don't require a father to do anything to protect his rights before a woman gives birth.
In Utah, unwed fathers must comply with what state registrar Janice Houston said is known in her office as the "rule of nine months plus one day " they must assert paternity before the birth mother consents to an adoption and relinquishes her rights, which cannot occur until 24 hours after she gives birth. For birth fathers who learn only after the event that the child was born in and placed for adoption in Utah, the law provides an additional 20 days for them to act.
While Utah's courts require electronic filings, the Utah Office of Vital Records currently accepts only paper filings. That means an out-of-state father must either travel to Utah or hire an attorney to file documents with the registrar's office.
"The goal of what Sen. Robles is working toward would allow us to turn this into a completely electronic process and make it easier for dads to file," Houston said. It also would reduce human error; allow the office to "bundle" filings more easily with court documents; and would be searchable by agencies and attorneys at any time.
Some past Utah court decisions have found fathers to be subject to state law here, even when they timely fulfilled requirements in their home states after getting the barest of information from a birth mother, such as a text message or phone call that said, "I'm in Utah."
"Utah has become a magnet for birth mothers to flee their home state and come here to give birth without any notice to birth fathers," said Wes Hutchins, an adoption attorney and president of the Utah Council for Ethical Adoption Practices. "The whole point of a national putative father registry is a birth father doesn't have to guess where a mom is going to go."
David Hardy, an adoption attorney and member of the Utah Adoption Council and American Association of Adoption Attorneys, said both groups support a national putative father registry.
"It gets a little confusing…from state to state," he said. "It would be extremely helpful to have a national registry we could check."
Recent cases involving notice issues
Ramsey Shaud, whom the Utah Supreme Court ruled last November was improperly denied an opportunity to intervene in his daughter's adoption, filed his paperwork in Utah before the birth but the documents were not filed by the registrar's office for days because of a federal holiday and the four-day work week then in place for state agencies. Shaud had taken steps in Florida, his home state, to protect his right, and then also filed in Arizona and Utah after learning his girlfriend planned to visit those states over the Christmas holidays.
As Shaud feared, the woman gave birth in Utah on Jan. 15, 2010, and placed the infant through a Utah adoption agency five days later.
In another decision, the court said in January 2012 that Rob Manzanares of Colorado could not have known his daughter would be born and placed for adoption in Utah when his ex-girlfriend said she was traveling to Utah to visit a sick relative and thus was improperly barred from intervening in the adoption proceeding. Manzanares had filed paternity documents in Colorado before the baby's birth in February 2009. With that decision the court essentially disavowed a 2009 ruling in which it found a woman who told a birth father by telephone that she was "in Utah" had given adequate notice he needed to protect his rights here. Cody O'Dea had filed paternity documents in his home state of Wyoming and in Montana, where he believed the mother might give birth.