Birth father rights the focus of two bills under consideration by Utah Legislature

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Utah laws don’t adequately protect the rights of unmarried biological fathers whose children are placed for adoption without their knowledge, and they’re lobbying state lawmakers for reforms.

“Utah has become nationally known for being a state that makes it very difficult for those fathers who are making a true, honest, good-faith effort to raise and rear their child,” Dan Deuel, of the National Parents Organization, recently told state lawmakers debating whether Utah should become part of an interstate compact to share putative father registrations.

“They don’t find out until after the fact. They’ve been shut out of their child’s life,” said Deuel, referring to births and adoptions that have occurred in Utah without birth fathers’ knowledge or consent.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, has introduced legislation to establish an interstate compact to allow states to share putative father registry information. The legislative body of each state would have to pass legislation allowing their state to participate in the compact.

In Utah, unmarried men who believe they may have fathered a child and want to start the process of preserving their parental rights can file a “Notice of Commencement of Paternity Proceeding” with the state Office of Vital Records and Statistics within the Utah Department of Health.

Robles said Utah’s process works fairly well.

“The problem is, the moment you step outside of Utah, you basically have to register in every state unless you know where that woman is going to give birth to that baby,” she said.

Around 50 putative fathers a year have filed the notice with the state health department the past three years.

Robles’ bill would allow states to share father registry information. State laws vary considerably. Some states do not have registries, while other require putative fathers to register within a certain number of days following a child’s birth.

The Utah Council for Ethical Adoption Practices supports the SB63 because it would “remove the mystery of trying to figure out what is the law in each state,” said Wes Hutchins, president of the council and a family law attorney.

Some biological fathers who live outside Utah have attempted to preserve their parental rights following the laws of their home states only to learn later that the child they had fathered had been placed for adoption in Utah without their knowledge or consent.

A number of those cases have gone to court with mixed results. A few birth fathers have been reunited with their children. In other cases, courts have declined to disrupt adoptions. Utah law leaves open the option for fathers filing civil lawsuits against birth mothers.

Creating a mechanism for states to share information would be a “win-win,” Robles said.

“I think this is a practical thing. We do compacts on many, many things in terms of sharing information. I don’t know why Congress hasn’t been able to take care of this. It just seems common sense,” she said.

The bill was approved on second reading in the Senate but it is on hold while legislative attorneys refine its language.

Meanwhile, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, has introduced SB246, which would require notice of potential adoption proceedings be provided to a birth fathers with certain exceptions.

Those include rape, incest or other evidence that the birth father has been physically abusive toward the birth mother in the past and “she fears he will be abusive in the future,” the bill states.

The bill is scheduled for hearing Monday by the Senate Business and Labor Committee, although Bramble’s SB54, which addresses the process by which candidates get on primary election ballots, is scheduled to be heard by a different committee at the same time.

Once a father files notice of commencement of paternity proceedings with the state, SB246 also establishes an expectation that a putative father pay a reasonable amount of the expenses incurred with the pregnancy and birth “unless the birth mother refuses to accept the birth father’s offer to pay.”

While lawmakers debate the issue, a lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court seeks to have the Utah Adoption Act declared unconstitutional.

The lawsuit, filed by Hutchins on behalf of 12 birth fathers, says in part that Utah laws are “a confusing labyrinth of virtually incomprehensible legal mandates and nearly impossible deadlines” that violate the rights of unwed fathers.

Hutchins said his office’s phone has been ringing “off the hook” since the lawsuit was filed on Jan. 22 and people learned about the legal challenge through news reports.

“We’re up to 26 different birth fathers (as plaintiffs) now,” he said.