Until 1972, laws governing fathers were simple: “unless you’re wed, you’re dead.” Utah like other states, would like to keep fathers entombed. Twenty-one year old single father John Wyatt is very much alive, however, and wants to raise his baby daughter, Emma. With help from his mother, Jeri, and Emma’s mother, Emily Colleen Fahland, he should have no problem. Wyatt deserves accolades for stepping up to the plate when other unmarried fathers would have hidden in the dugout. Instead the State of Utah threw him a curve ball and called him out.
Wyatt’s story is just one in a string of cases that began when the US Supreme Court held in 1972 that state laws could not obliterate fathers. Back to that in a minute. First a recap of Wyatt’s struggle.
When Fahland of Woodbridge, Virginia learned she was pregnant, she began discussions with A (sic) Act of Love, a Utah adoption agency. According to Wyatt, however, she told him they would raise the baby together. When Wyatt learned of Emma’s birth, he rushed to the hospital where the officials lied to him, telling him Fahland and the baby were not there. Shortly after the birth, an employee of A (sic) Act of Love took Fahland and Emma to a nearby hotel where Fahland signed a consent to adoption. The prospective adoptive parents, Chandra and Thomas Zarembinski, who were at the hotel as well, took Emma to Utah two days later and filed a petition to adopt her.
Wyatt filed for custody in Virginia, six days after Emma’s birth and three days before the Zarembinski’s filed their petition for the adoption. The Virginia trial court ruled that the adoption could not proceed without Wyatt’s consent. A Utah trial court refused to honor the Virginia decision, ruling that Wyatt had waited too long to file his Virginia action under Utah law. Wyatt has appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals. Since Wyatt, Fahland, and Emma were all residents of Virgina, the Utah trial court should have honored the Virginia decision. If the Utah Court of Appeals upholds the adoption, as is likely, in spite of constitutional provisions requiring states to give credit to the judgments of other states, the case could be headed to the federal courts to resolve the conflict.
Meanwhile, the Zarembinski‘s attorney chants the tired mantra that “they’re the only parents this child has ever known” ignoring the nine months Emma spent with her natural mother, Fahland. In cases where children have been returned to their natural and rightful parents after time spent with impostors, the children have not been shown to have suffered psychological damage. For a court to accept “the only parents she has ever known” argument would be to condone kidnapping. (I always wonder how adoptive parents in these contested cases reconcile themselves to keeping a child away from loving parents, particularly when so many children do need homes.
The adoption business in Utah is thriving, thanks to laws influenced by the Mormon Church which favors breaking up natural families in the name of family values. According to the Washington Post, “Baby Emma case puts state adoption laws between father, child,” there have been “at least 10 recent cases in which babies were taken to or born in Utah and adopted without an out-of-state father's consent.”
I have to admit, though, that my own state, liberal unchurched Oregon, is no better when it comes to father-friendliness, requiring single fathers to initiate paternity proceedings before their child is placed with the prospective adoptive parents. As a practical matter fathers must start paternity actions prior to the child’s birth because mothers sign irrevocable surrenders and children are placed with the adoptive parents within a day of birth.
Far from valuing families, Utah and Oregon are pimping for the adoption industry.
Ironically, if Fahland had kept Emma and Wyatt had pulled a John Edwards, denying paternity and refusing to support his child, the State of Utah would have been all over him, threatening to throw his butt in jail if he did not pay up.
Now, here’s the legal stuff. Prior to 1972, state laws declared that the guy who provided bastards half their DNA was dead, mort, nada, non-existent. Oregon’s statute, for example, read:
“The consent [to adoption] of the mother of the child is sufficient … and for all purposes relating to the adoption of the child, the father of the child shall be disregarded just as if he were dead, when it is shown … that the mother of the child was unmarried at the time of conception of the child to be adopted and remained unmarried at the time of the birth of the child.”Birth Father Rights
These laws served the adoption industry well until Thomas Stanley threw a wrench into the works. Stanley lived with Joan Stanley intermittently for 18 years during which time they had three children. When Joan died, the State of Illinois made the children wards of the state, declaring that they had no living parents. Stanley sued and in 1972 the US Supreme Court ruled for him, holding that fathers had the same right as mothers to nurture their children, Stanley v. Illinois. In a truly inspirational opinion, Justice Byron White wrote:
“The Court has frequently emphasized the importance of the family. The rights to conceive and to raise one's children have been deemed 'essential, 'basic civil rights of man, and rights far more precious than property rights. 'It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder.' The integrity of the family unit has found protection in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Ninth Amendment.” (Citations omitted.)Chief Justice Warren Burger dissented:
“Furthermore, I believe that a State is fully justified in concluding, on the basis of common human experience, that the biological role of the mother in carrying and nursing an infant creates stronger bonds between her and the child than the bonds resulting from the male's often casual encounter. This view is reinforced by the observable fact that most unwed mothers exhibit a concern for their offspring either permanently or at least until they are safely placed for adoption, while unwed fathers rarely burden either the mother or the child with their attentions or loyalties. Centuries of human experience buttress this view of the realities of human conditions and suggest that unwed mothers of illegitimate children are generally more dependable protectors of their children than are unwed fathers. While these, like most generalizations, are not without exceptions, they nevertheless provide a sufficient basis to sustain a statutory classification whose objective is not to penalize unwed parents but to further the welfare of illegitimate children in fulfillment of the State's obligations as parens patriae.”While Justice White won the battle, it seems that Justice Burger won the war. States scrambled to amend their laws to meet the twin goals of complying with Stanley in theory while preventing unmarried fathers from nurturing their children in fact. States enacted laws with arcane provisions that assured that pesky poppas would not be more than minor inconveniences to the adoption business. These laws included “putative father registries” requiring men to file a notice with their state that they might have fathered a child and ridiculously short time periods for fathers to assert their rights.
We can only hope that the courts recognize the cruelty and injustice done to Wyatt, Emma, and Fahland and allow Emma to re-join her parents. For updates on the case, see Baby Emma.