It's a couple's nightmare: Months or years after they adopt an infant, the birth father sues to void the adoption and claim custody of the child. And as recent national cases have proved, it can happen.
Now legislators will be asked to change Utah laws so that birth fathers cannot claim a child after an adoption has taken place."We'd like to see fathers take responsibility," Sen. Charles Stewart, R-Provo, told members of the Human Services Interim Committee Wednesday. "And make sure that once a child is placed, claims cannot be made several years later."
Janetha Hancock, general counsel for the committee, said she has never been asked to study an item that seems more "legally complex." Since the Baby Jessica case received wide media attention, "I got six to 10 different requests on the issue of adoption."
Some of those requests contradicted each other; all were complicated, she said.
Stewart's proposal, which is still being drafted, will center around the rights of unmarried fathers and protection for couples who adopt. Some of it will be patterned after laws in New York, which thoroughly address the issue.
New York, for example, bases the length of time a father has to make a claim from the infant's birth, rather than from when he becomes aware that he is a father. The state also requires a father be able and willing to assume full custody, rather than just have intent to prevent a third party from having the baby. And it denies the right of consent in adoptions to any father who does not immediately come forward to establish paternity.
Men who engage in sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage need to understand that there are certain risks - including the risk of a pregnancy, said David McConkie, Utah Adoption Council. It is important that legislation balance competing interests.
Stewart said that a father who is supporting a child and who admits his paternity and responsibility should have rights. His bill will provide "absolute protection" for a father who comes forward and assumes paternity. But there is a presumption that a man who engages in premarital sex knows there may be a child. And he does not have the right to come forward much later and try to change an adoption that has occurred, Stewart said.
"Among ourselves, we are trying to do this in the most constitutional way," he said.
Not everyone agreed that diminishing a father's claims is a good idea.
"Fathers are responsible to pay child support for 18 years," said Conrad Lloyd, a member of the Divorce Reform Utah Movement. "It's ludicrous not to provide information or notice (to fathers) about the birth of babies (they fathered). Fathers need some rights. Let's balance some books a little and be fair."