How a willing father lost rights to his infant son

Date: 2006-04-02

ROBYN E. BLUMNER
St Petersburg Times

I've never met Jeremiah Clayton Jones, but I liked him instantly while talking with him on the phone from his home in Arizona. Jones has a way of speaking that communicates sincerity, assuredness and respect for whomever he is talking to, in the way a young man in the military might.

Jones will need every ounce of that fortitude. At 23, he is facing the fight of his life.

The American legal system is full of David-versus-Goliath stories, but few contestants are so mismatched as when the might and money of the adoption industry is pitted against hapless unwed natural fathers, such as Jones, who have the audacity to want to be parents to their children.

Jones has an 18-month-old son whom he has never seen. The baby was adopted even as Jones objected as loudly as he could and with every resource he had.

But because Jones did not know to file with Florida's registry for unwed fathers, his parental rights were extinguished.

These putative-fathers registries exist in some form in about 30 states. In Florida, unless an unwed man files a form with the state every time he has intercourse, he can be stripped of his rights to any child born of the relationship. Yet the registry is so obscure that, in 2004, only 47 putative fathers registered for 89,436 out-of-wedlock births.

The $1.4 billion adoption industry pushes for these laws, claiming they are protective of fathers' rights. It's a laughable assertion. What these laws do is make it easy to push fathers out of the picture so the lucrative business of baby selling can go forward unimpeded.

If you ask parents what is the worst fate that could possibly befall them, their answer inevitably is that one of their children gets ill, dies or is taken from them. When the government takes a baby from his father and offers him to strangers, there must be a solid basis for it, something calamitous, such as leaving junior on his own while dad's at the track. Otherwise, it is state-sponsored kidnapping.

Here is the story of how Jones says his child was legally stolen:

Jones and the child's mother met at Pensacola Christian College and became secretly engaged. They even held a private marriage-like commitment ceremony. But her parents strongly objected to the relationship, and when they were told that the couple had become sexually active, they swooped in and spirited their daughter away.

Jones tried every which way to communicate with his fiancee, but her parents stymied his attempts. He had no idea she was pregnant, but he desperately wanted to marry her and returned to Arizona for a job to demonstrate that he could be a good provider.

Three weeks before his son's birth, he was contacted by Jeanne Tate, an attorney for Heart of Adoptions Inc., a for-profit adoption agency in Tampa, and learned for the first time that he was going to be a dad.

Jones said it was ''the happiest news you're ever going to get in your lifetime.'' He told Tate he would not consent to an adoption and asked what he needed to do to secure his rights. But he says Tate refused to help and withheld information about Florida's Putative Fathers' Registry requirement.

When asked about the conversation, Tate said she could not speak specifically about the case due to confidentiality, but explained that she was constrained from giving legal advice ''to an adversary.''

Only in the disturbed world of unethical adoptions is a dad an ''adversary.'' When a biological father who is fit says he wants to raise his son, everything should screech to a halt. But then, of course, the adoption agency wouldn't make any money. Even Tate admitted, ''It's a business.''

Jones realized that Tate intended to press on with the adoption despite his vocal objections and contacted a lawyer in Florida who specializes in family law. The attorney apparently did not know about the paternity registry requirement but filed a paternity suit the day before the boy was born. It didn't matter. The adoption was finalized because Jones had not filed with the registry in time.

An appeal is pending before a Florida appellate court. Jones hopes the court will agree that his constitutional right to his progeny overrides some hypertechnical legal ''gotcha'' for fathers.

But for some reason, the courts have not generally been kind to unwed fathers, often treating them as something akin to interlopers. This stubborn bias is an ugly combination of moral condemnation, gender stereotyping and class-based haughtiness. When fighting over a baby, the adoptive parents tend to be wealthier, better educated and more stable than the biological father. Unfairly, judicial sympathy lies with them.

It is ironic that, when men don't want to be fathers, they can nonetheless be on the hook for 18 years of child support. But when a man wants to care for and raise his child, he is considered a nuisance to be outmaneuvered through legal trickery.

This is terribly unjust, and it's why, for Jones and for the sake of unwed dads everywhere, David has to slay Goliath one more time.

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