About one year ago, Ramsey Shaud learned he was going to be a dad. Even though he and the mother only had a casual relationship, Shaud, 23, dreamed of raising his first child—either with his baby's mother or without her, if needed.
Shaud has a Southern drawl evidencing his Florida-Panhandle upbringing in the small city of Crestview, population about 15,000. He met his baby’s mother, Shasta, 20, when they were children. She was a friend of his sister’s and her mother taught at the middle school they both attended. Shaud and Shasta started dating, however, only a few months before she became pregnant.
“I told her that I wanted to be there in every aspect: get a place together and everything,” Shaud says. “I wanted to be there for the birth of the child and I wanted the child.”
Shasta’s mother, who Shaud says was once a teen mother, objected. “‘I’m not going to let her make the same mistakes I made,’ ” Shaud recalls Shasta’s mother telling him. He says Shasta briefly considered abortion, which prompted Shaud to offer to raise the child himself.
Both Shaud and Shasta live in Florida, but he nevertheless learned quickly what it means to be a “putative father,” or an unmarried man who is presumed to be the baby’s father, under Utah adoption law.
Contact between Shaud and Shasta became strained because of Shasta’s wish to place the baby for adoption. Each time he called, she asked him to sign forms consenting to adoption and would hang up when he refused. At an impasse, communication ended entirely in November 2009. Shaud took to the Internet, where he found legal documents that would help him stop an adoption proceeding in Florida. Shasta had family in Arizona, so he did the same thing there. He said both were easy.
In December, he received a note from Shasta: “Hey, Ramsey, I’ll be in Arizona with my family for the holidays and will stay on in Utah for awhile.” It was a strange note to receive after weeks of no communication and ample anger preceding that. But, that random and mysterious note—a so-called “qualifying circumstance” under Utah law—triggered a 20-day deadline for Shaud to comply with Utah’s adoption laws—by hiring a Utah attorney and submitting various forms—or lose his child.
About eight months since receiving that note and the birth, Shaud has never seen his child, who lives with an adoptive family. Shaud is appealing. A higher court will decide whether Shaud complied with Utah’s requirements within the time limits—or whether he was one day too late. Shaud alleges that he was two days early, but that a delay at the state Office of Vital Records and Statistics sabotaged his efforts and made his paperwork one day late.
Other fathers have similar complaints. One was told by the mother that she had miscarried. Yet another was told he hadn’t adequately explained his “plan for care” of the child in his court paperwork that his hired attorney authored.
In most states, putative fathers have certain requirements they must meet to stop an adoption, but many local and national experts agree that Utah is one of the toughest—if not the toughest—state for unmarried fathers to stop an adoption. Presiding judge of the Utah Court of Appeals James Davis has written that Utah adoption laws put unmarried fathers in an “impossible bind.” Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court Christine Durham has written that Utah could become a national “magnet for those seeking to unfairly cut off opportunities” for fathers qualified to raise their own children. Five men registered as putative fathers in June alone. According to the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics, about 20 men register each year.
The rhetoric from the aggrieved families, many of whom communicate cross-country, is flaring. Geri Wyatt, of Dumphries, Va., whose granddaughter Emma was born in Virginia but was placed for adoption under Utah law, says the Beehive State is facilitating kidnapping.
“We went to the hospital to see his child and the hospital [in Virginia] … lied to us and told us there was no baby there. While they were keeping us at bay, they slipped the birth mother and baby out a side exit … where she signed away her rights on a Utah relinquishment form,” she says. “To me, if that isn’t kidnapping, I don’t know what is.”
The intent of Utah’s adoption laws is to quickly place children with a stable family.
Adoption attorney and lobbyist Larry Jenkins, a man at the forefront of Utah's adoption policies, says mothers who place their children for adoption may do so to avoid sharing custody with the baby's birth father, which can lead to conflicts over parent time and child-support disagreements that could last 18 years. "They want their babies in a good, stable situation," Jenkins says.
Federal and state laws do give more power to women, and to some extent, that’s legitimate, says Utah Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, a family-law attorney who has represented putative fathers and adoptive families. Health risks related to childbirth should give women an edge. “The guy does escape much of the trauma a girl has to go through,” she says.
But since the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that unmarried biological fathers also have rights to their children after birth.
So, to help distinguish ne’er-do-wells from truly capable and desirous parents-to-be, Utah requires unmarried fathers to “put their money where their mouth is,” as Fowlke puts it, by requiring them to file a paternity petition in court, which requires an attorney. That already is stricter than most states.
But there’s more. That court petition must state a plan for care of the child, that the father offered to pay pre-birth costs related to the pregnancy and that he is willing to pay child support. If he fails to mention either of those last two, it’s gone-baby-gone, even if he actually did pay pre-birth costs and is willing to pay child support. Simultaneously, fathers must also place their name on the Putative Father Registry in the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics. In many cases, they can do this any time prior to the birth of a child until the time the mother relinquishes her rights to the child and places it for adoption, which under Utah law can happen 24 hours after the birth. Ohio, on the other hand, gives fathers a minimum of 30 days after the birth.
Defenders of Utah’s laws say the putative-father registry—a tool used by dozens of states, but each with different requirements and procedures—adequately helps fathers protect their rights. Some even suggest that a national putative-fathers registry would regularize the procedure so that fathers aren’t so confused by varied state laws.
Others are critical of the registries. “As they currently exist, [putative-father registries] too often are used to cut men out under the guise of cutting them in,” says Adam Pertman, the executive director of the New York City-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
A July blog post on Orem-based A Act of Love Adoptions’ Website announcing a soon-to-be-born baby available for adoption contained this note to prospective parents: “Agency will not be getting a consent from birth father. The Utah Birthfather [sic] Registry can be used specifically for families finalizing the adoption in Utah.”
The registry is only one tool “used” to cut out fathers, who are often ignored by the agencies, at least in their advertising. The Adoption Center of Choice, for example, says, “All of our adoptions are tailored to meet the needs of both our birth mothers and adoptive families.” Fathers’ needs aren’t mentioned.
Both agencies declined comment for this story.
Fowlke says, “There are some adoption agencies that will purposefully try and manipulate factual situations to get around the law.” Indeed, manipulation, deceit, bureaucratic errors and pedantic adherence to procedure have all separated fathers from their babies in Utah.