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A state lawmaker has introduced a bill aimed at preventing an unmarried woman from coming to Utah to give birth and pursue adoption without informing the biological father of her plan, a problem highlighted in a Friday Utah Supreme Court ruling involving an unmarried Colorado father.
House Bill 308, sponsored by Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, would require pregnant women to give notice by mail or publication to out-of-state unmarried fathers if they plan to give birth and place infants for adoption in Utah.
Watkins' proposed bill also simplifies the process an unwed father must follow to initially protect his rights, eliminating the requirement that he initiate a court action before he can file a notice of intent to claim paternity with the state's putative father registry. That change would apply to Utah residents as well as unwed fathers who reside elsewhere.
The bill would require a notice to be sent to the unmarried father's last known residence or published in a newspaper where he was last known to reside that informs him of an adoption plan and what he needs to do to protect his rights. It sets a deadline of 30 days for the father to act once he receives the notice or the mother gives consent or relinquishes the baby.
An unwed father who files a paternity notice with the state registry would then have an additional 30 days to begin a court paternity action and file other declarations about his interest in assuming custody and caring for the child. If the unmarried father does not respond, his consent to the adoption would be assumed, the bill says.
"I am very sympathetic to fathers loving their children," said Watkins, who has two brothers and four sons. "A lot of fathers don't want to give up on their children. I thought, 'You know, let's give these guys a chance.'"
Utah's current law says that once a birth mother consents to an adoption or relinquishes her child, that decision may not be revoked. Watkins' proposed bill changes that, too. If a biological father successfully asserts his parental rights, a birth mother would have 30 days to then revoke her consent to the adoption.
Two Utah attorneys said the legislation was a "step in the right direction."
"The state obviously needs a means to facilitate adoptions of out-of-state children but the current system is ripe for abuse," said Joshua Peterman, an attorney for a Florida father whose effort to intervene in his daughter's adoption is currently pending before the Utah Supreme Court.
Wes Hutchins, who is an adoption attorney and an adoptive father, consulted on Watkins' bill. He is also president of the Utah Adoption Council but spoke independently of that organization on Friday.
He said the Utah Supreme Court's rulingrequiring a rehearing in the case of Colorado father Robert Manzanares "lends considerable support for positive change in this area of the law," including changes proposed by Watkins that are "designed to prevent birth mothers from forum shopping Utah just to cut bio dads out of the parenting picture."
The justices determined Manzanares did not know and reasonably could not have known that a birth and adoption would take place in Utah, entitling him to intervene in the proceedings.
John Hedrick, Manzanares' Colorado attorney, said given the current loophole in Utah's adoption law, he has taken to urging unwed fathers to file in Utah any time a birth mother has the slightest tie to the state or its predominant Mormon religion, a practice he'll continue unless the law is changed.