A new Florida statute requires that mothers who seek to put their children up for adoption must first make a substantial effort to notify their children's fathers. To those who believe that fathers should have the right to be an integral part of their children's lives, this is a reasonable law. Yet to the National Organization for Women it is an "outrage." And to Jeanne Tate, executive vice president of the Florida Association of Adoption Professionals, the statute's requirements are "horrible," "degrading," and "reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter."
What is truly an outrage is NOW's and the FAAP's lack of consideration for fathers and children. Agonizing and emotional custody battles between biological and adoptive parents--like those in the well-publicized Baby Richard and Baby Jessica cases--demonstrate the need for an effective notification system which can prevent children from being adopted against their biological fathers' wishes.
Although previous laws required birth mothers to place notices in local newspapers concerning pending adoptions, the new statute, enacted last year, requires that these notices be more detailed and comprehensive. Now a mother who is seeking to put her child up for adoption and who is not in contact with the child's father must, as a last resort, attempt to notify the father by placing a notice in an appropriate newspaper. The notice must contain the age, race, hair and eye color, and approximate height and weight of the child's mother and also of "any person the mother reasonably believes may be the father."
NOW, the FAAP, and other opponents of the new statute argue that its notification requirements can be humiliating for women who have had multiple sex partners and who are unsure of the identity of the father. While this is a legitimate complaint, it is unreasonable to suggest that a birth mother's embarrassment is more important than a father's right to raise his child.
In addition, depriving a child of knowledge of his parentage can have damaging medical and emotional implications. For example, for children facing life-threatening illnesses such as cancers requiring bone-marrow transplants or other medical emergencies, knowing their biological heritage can be a matter of life or death. Also, many adopted children, no matter how much they may love their adoptive parents, will one day want to seek out their biological parents.
The statute's opponents also argue that a woman who has been raped should not have to give notification that she is giving the child up for adoption. This is a valid concern but one which has already been addressed by the Palm Beach County circuit court. In May, the court issued a ruling which declared that the statute's notification requirements are an unconstitutional invasion of privacy for women who became pregnant as a result of sexual assault.
The underlying assumption made by the opponents of the notification statute is that men do not want their children. While some parents (both male and female) are irresponsible, often the problem in adoptions is not that unwed biological fathers do not care about their children, but that they do not know of their existence.
In fact, many unwed fathers struggle desperately to remain a part of their children's lives. They are often thwarted by mothers who find them inconvenient, and family court systems and policies which do little to enforce their right to be a meaningful part of their children's lives.
Detailed notices in newspapers are a reasonable (although imperfect) solution to the father notification problem. A better alternative is for the state to allow women to use its Parent Locator System--the system used to track down parents who owe child support. State systems are tied into the Federal Parent Locator System, and they are often remarkably effective at finding parents where other agencies fail.
The locator system would help women find their children's fathers and thus reduce the need for the public notices in newspapers. Since this system is routinely used to track down fathers who owe child support, why can't it be used to unite fathers and their children?
This column first appeared in the Washington Times (8/22/02)
Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from the male perspective. He can be reached at . Dianna Thompson is a founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children (www.acfc.org). She can be contacted by e-mail at .