|The Florida Supreme Court issued
a ruling last week expanding the rights of unmarried men who
believe they are the fathers of children born outside of
wedlock. As a result, a man believed to be the father of a
child must be notified before an unmarried mother can place a
newborn child for adoption.
The case involved a 30 year old man,
known as J.A. in court papers who filed suit to restore his
parental rights for Baby H., a boy who was born on August 5,
J.A. learned about the boy three
months before he was born and filed a paternity suit the day
after Baby H. was born. The mother placed the child up for
adoption the next day.
The mother claimed that J.A. had
no right to claim paternity since he had not first filed a
paternity claim with the state's Putative Father Registry.
J.A. explained that he had not filed with the registry because
he was not aware that it existed.
A trial court ruled against J.A.,
finding that his failure to file with the registry was fatal to
his claim of parenthood. J.A. appealed and the Court of
Appeal reversed that ruling.
The case landed in the Florida
Supreme Court when the Court of Appeal requested the court to
take the case as a matter of great public importance.
The Supreme Court sided with the
father and concluded that an unmarried man who is the potential
father of a child born out of wedlock must be given notice of
his duty to register with the Putative Father Registry before
his rights may be terminated. This is premised on the
ability to locate the potential father.
The father's lawyer had argued to
the court that very few unmarried men are aware of the registry,
citing statistics from 2004 when only 47 men registered although
90,000 children were born to unmarried mothers that year.
The agency which had placed Baby
H. for adoption urged the court to strictly interpret the
registration statute and make men register or lose their rights.
Realizing the potential absurdity
of the agency's position, one justice asked the agency's lawyer
at oral argument if an unmarried man who just had sex should
skip "smoking the classic cigarette" afterwards and instead
immediately tell the Health Department "I want the state to know
that I have just had sexual intercourse."
Members of the court were
obviously aware of the fact that many unmarried men do not know
their sex partner has become pregnant because the relationship
had been casual and the partner does not advise the man that she
is pregnant and carrying his child. It may be months
before the man learns of the pregnancy, often just prior to or
The Florida court decision has
national implications since more than 33 percent of all children
in the United States are born to unmarried parents. Some
33 states have passed putative father registries.
Many states have passed these
registries in order to limit the right of unmarried men to
object to mothers placing the children for adoption without
their consent or even awareness.
I last wrote about this issue on
February 6, 2006 in a column entitled "Unmarried birth dads can't afford to be passive."
That commentary discussed a decision of the North Carolina
Supreme Court which terminated the parental rights of an
unmarried father who had failed to jump through various hoops
and overcome several legal hurdles in his attempt to secure
rights to his child.
Despite being given some leniency
by the Florida Supreme Court, my warning to unmarried men who
have unprotected sex is the same now as it was back then:
"Unmarried birth fathers need to
be aggressive in asserting their parenting rights. When it
comes to establishing or forfeiting a life-long bond with a
child, an impending or recent birth is not a time for an
unmarried man to be timid."
To read other editions of
Column One, click here.
Unmarried America 2007
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and