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Bill would create dads' registry

Assured by the measure protecting fathers' rights, Gov. Jeb Bush allows a separate adoption bill to become law.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


Assured by the measure protecting fathers' rights, Gov. Jeb Bush allows a separate adoption bill to become law.

TALLAHASSEE -- Men who have impregnated a woman, or think they have, may soon be signing a registry to preserve their parental rights.

The Legislature is poised to approve a bill creating a "father's registry," and men who sign it would have to be notified of any adoption proceedings.

The registry is the Legislature's latest attempt to rewrite Florida adoption law so that children cannot be taken from adoptive parents by birth parents who change their minds.

Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday allowed a sweeping adoption bill to become law without his signature. He did so after being assured that a second measure establishing the father's registry would clear the Legislature in this session.

How would a registry of potential birth fathers help? Critics say it won't, because it has huge loopholes.

But Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, sponsor of the bill creating the registry, explained it this way: If a man knows he has impregnated a woman, or believes he may have, he could sign a confidential registry maintained by the state. By signing no later than 30 days after the child's birth, the man would be guaranteed the right to be notified of any adoption proceedings.

A father who didn't sign the registry on time would lose that right, unless the birth mother intentionally misled him into thinking he had not fathered a child, Byrd said. Even in that rare circumstance, the father would have only one year to assert his parental rights.

Both measures are necessary to make sure that a child is not torn away from the only parents he or she has known, Byrd said.

"The whole purpose of the father's registry is to put the ball in the court of the father and say, "You do have some responsibility,' " Byrd said.

Fathers who are married to the mother would not need to sign the adoption registry, and neither would fathers in certain other cases, such as those who already have been established by DNA testing to be the parent.

Rob Harrell, an adoption lawyer in Fort Walton Beach, likes the concept of the father's registry but not as written. He said Byrd's bill was amended to exempt any man who can prove he is the father of the child, even after the 30 days has passed -- meaning the bill has no teeth.

The bill would create "a paper tiger registry," said Susan Stockham of Sarasota, president of the Florida Association of Adoption Professionals.

The Legislature habitually passes "glitch bills," designed to correct minor errors in the previous year's laws. But Byrd's bill is a rare case of the Legislature trying to improve upon a law passed during the same legislative session.

Bush said he decided to allow the first bill to become law without his signature after he was assured that Byrd's bill would also be approved. It has passed the House but awaits action in the Senate.

The Byrd bill "fixes some of the issues I was concerned about," Bush said. "Without it, I probably would have vetoed the (earlier) bill. Byrd's bill provides protections for adoptive parents and greater clarity to the law."

Besides the registry, Bush mentioned other provisions in the Byrd bill, including the limitation that the birth father would have just one year to assert his rights. The new law would allow a two-year period, which some say increases the uncertainty over an adoption.

Under the bill that Bush allowed to become law:

Mothers must wait 48 hours after giving birth before giving up their parental rights. There is currently no waiting period.

Adoptive parents must search more extensively to find the birth father.

Adoption lawyers and agencies will be liable for the expenses of prospective adoptive parents if a court finds that the lawyer or agency fraudulently obtained a birth parent's consent. A judge also can award attorney's fees to a birth parent who prevails in setting aside an adoption.

A judge cannot find that a birth father abandoned his child -- grounds for termination of parental rights -- solely because he did not provide emotional support to the birth mother during pregnancy.

Lawyers cannot charge legal fees for "non-legal" paperwork, which should help limit costs for adoptive parents.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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