Utah lawmakers make move to stop adoption ‘forum shopping’

An unwed mother who is in Utah for less than 90 days before proceeding with an adoption would now have to provide more information about the child’s potential biological father, a requirement aimed at ending “forum shopping” and end-runs around unmarried fathers who live in other states, under a bill passed by the Utah Legislature.

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told his colleagues Utah has become a haven for “quick adoptions” involving out-of-state birth mothers and cited two recent cases involving fathers from Colorado and Pennsylvania. The Utah Supreme Court found both those fathers had been improperly barred from intervening in adoptions after being misled by former girlfriends who surreptitiously traveled to Utah.

Wilson said the change would affect about 1 percent of the 2,500 adoptions in Utah involving a birth mother brought here to take advantage of Utah’s stringent requirements regarding birth fathers.

“There is nothing that I care more about than having an adoption process and laws that encourage adoptions, but we do legitimately have a problem,” said Wilson, who disclosed that he himself was adopted 45 years ago. The modification would achieve “the right balance that will fix this loophole and keep courts out of our adoption laws.”

SB229 was sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

“My number one goal was to not disturb the apple cart for the thousands of legitimate adoptions” in Utah, Weiler said Friday. “And number two, I think I successfully installed a speed bump for some of these out-of-state adoptions.”

The proposed amendment to Utah’s adoption law, which is headed to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature, would require a birth mother who has not been in the state at least 90 days to file a declaration with a court overseeing the adoption the judge can use to determine whether to provide notice of the proceeding to an unwed father. The declaration would have to include information gathered from putative father registries in any state where a father might be; it also would have to indicate whether the birth mother informed the father of the pregnancy or her intent to pursue an adoption in Utah.

It would require a court to provide notice only in cases where a father has taken “sufficient” action to show interest in the child and protect his legal rights.

“I think that the information that this requires will better assist a judge to see if a putative father has reached out to grab those rights,” Weiler said.

The requirement would apply to adoptions involving a child who is 6 months of age or younger. As with any adoption proceeding, all information is filed under seal.

The bill received support from the Utah Adoption Council, the Utah Council for Ethical Adoption Practices and 10 of the state’s adoption agencies, which said they already collect much of the information required under the modified law.

But nearly two dozen lawmakers voted against SB229, with several voicing the opinion that it was not needed.

“It just seems like to me women take all the risks in these situations and yet we still seem to be really concerned about the right of the semen donor, for lack of a better term,” said Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said it was “just wrong to suggest that Utah is somehow out of balance or deficient” in the way it treats unmarried fathers’ rights.

“Can you imagine how shallow the commitment is to that pregnancy that man has, to say that he can just show up at the last minute,” Christensen said. “I don’t think we have a problem. The current law addresses this just fine.”

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said the proposal was based on the “misconception that unwed fathers have constitutionally protected parental rights. They do not.”

Nelson said only a father who is married to the mother or a father who has filed for paternity and assumed responsibility for a child has any rights in an adoption proceeding. He said the law created too much of a burden for an unwed mother.

“The important thing to recognize is an unwed father who does have an interest in being a father will know where the mother is and will have filed a paternity action to assert his rights and agree to assume responsibility, financial and otherwise, for a child,” he said. “We have no obligation to track down the unwed father and give him special protections more than we do under current law.”

In fact, in recent years at least a handful of fathers have been thwarted by girlfriends — and in one case a legal wife — who came to Utah to give birth and proceed with an adoption without their knowledge and despite efforts to protect their rights in their home states.

Those men include Robert Manzanares, who filed a paternity action in Colorado about a month before his former girlfriend traveled to Utah on the pretext of visiting a sick relative and gave premature birth to his daughter. The Utah Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that shut Manzanares out of the legal proceedings and a Colorado judge recently gave Manzanares joint decision-making authority and liberal visitation with his now 6-year-old daughter.

Christopher Carlton of Pennsylvania was supporting his former girlfriend, who was pregnant with his child, and her two children when the woman disappeared. When she resurfaced, the woman initially told Carlton she’d given birth to a boy who had died. Months later she was ordered by a Pennsylvania judge to tell Carlton where the child was buried. The woman then admitted the child was a girl and had been placed for adoption in Utah. The Utah Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 25 that Carlton will get a second shot at intervening in the adoption proceeding.

Ramsey Shaud made a cross-country effort to protect his rights, filing paternity petitions in his home state of Florida, then Arizona and finally Utah as he tried to guess where his former girlfriend might give birth. His petition was deemed too late after it was not filed for several days because of a federal holiday and the four-day week then in force for state workers — a determination also later reversed by the Utah Supreme Court.

Samuel Gerome Dye of Texas had no idea what had become of his son, with whom he’d been involved since the boy’s birth in November 2011, until a former girlfriend admitted she’d fabricated a story about leaving him with her mother and had actually placed the 20-month-old child for adoption in Utah. Dye was reunited with his son in December 2013.

The story of Terry Achane, a married father then stationed with the Army in Texas, made worldwide headlines when his wife came to Utah to give birth and place his daughter for adoption without his knowledge or consent.

Those are the sort of cases Weiler, Wilson and several other supporters said the amendment is designed to fix.

“The problem is Utah is a state where certain adoption agencies bring a mother here because we have the loophole, to bypass the father in another state,” said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. “That is the loophole that this bill is closing.”

Dan Deuel, legislative chairman for the National Parents Organization, said that despite elimination of a provision that would have required notice of an adoption proceeding to be sent to a biological father, it was still “a good change.”

“It should help alleviate some of the cases we’ve seen where fathers have been lied to and deceived and had their child taken away from them,” he said.