Sunday, March 23, 2003

Fight for baby puts focus on registries

Father filed claim, but child adopted

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MIDDLETOWN - Baby Colette is caught in an interstate tug-of-war.

In a decision earlier this month, an appeals court here decided that an Indiana man, who claims he fathered Colette, should be allowed to argue against Colette's January 2002 placement with a Mason couple who adopted her. The couple want the court to reconsider its decision - or send the case, believed to be the first of its kind in Ohio, to the state Supreme Court.

The Indiana man wants Colette.

He registered as her "putative father" with authorities in Indiana - but he should have filed in Ohio, the adoptive parents' lawyer argues. A man who suspects he fathered a child, but is not married to the mother, must file as a putative father to safeguard his parental rights.

Problems with system

The Baby Colette case highlights problems with putative father registries, a national expert on adoption says.

"Registries don't work very well, because: a) most fathers don't know about them and b) even if they know about them, processes are not in place to make sure they are properly used," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit think tank that seeks to improve adoption policy and practice.

The Mason couple and the Indiana man, through their Cincinnati lawyers, declined to be interviewed for this article; the Enquirer is not naming the parties.

The Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown said that a Warren County court erred when it summarily ruled in the Mason couple's favor last October. Colette's putative father should be allowed "a hearing to determine whether his consent is required" for the child's placement with the Mason couple, the Middletown court said - a decision that could be unprecedented in Ohio.

"This one really snowballed into something more than anyone thought it would be," said Michael Cussen, who represents Colette's putative father. Cussen thinks this is the first time an Ohio court has addressed a dispute over where a putative father must register. The appeals court sent the case back to Warren County for further action.

The adopting couple's lawyer, Michael Voorhees, said the Middletown court "is the only court in the entire country that has ruled this way." Voorhees wants the court to reconsider its decision, which he says is based on misunderstanding of adoption laws.

In its eight-page decision, the appeals court said, "genetic testing has proven conclusively that (the Indiana man) is the biological father of the child." But Voorhees says no court has ruled on the paternity issue, so the Indiana man lacks the rights of a legal father - and can only be considered a putative father.

However, the appeals court said the Indiana man "clearly came forward within a reasonable time after the baby's birth and complied with the Indiana Putative Father Registry statute," which requires registration within 30 days of a birth.

List of fathers growing

Nearly 7,000 men have joined the list since Indiana established it in 1994; about 25 more men sign up each week, according to the Indiana State Department of Health, which maintains the registry.

Through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, a law adopted in all 50 states to coordinate adoptions, Colette's transfer from Indiana to Ohio was approved Jan. 25, 2002 - before the 30-day post-birth deadline for a putative father to register in either state.

The appeals court said, "As the sending state, Indiana is required to obtain the parents' consent or determine consent is not necessary." The court said that didn't appear to have been done in this case.

But Voorhees said the compact does not require a putative father's consent before placing a child in another state for adoption. His clients planned for the child's adoption in advance of her birth; a putative father ought to register before a child's birth, Voorhees argues.

Pertman, the adoption expert, favors a national putative father registry and adoption laws that require the interests of all involved parties to be considered.


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