The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah Court: Dads Have Say in Adoptions

Friday, October 5, 2001
BY ELIZABETH NEFF
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

Unwed Utah mothers cannot put their newborns up for adoption without the father's consent if, among other duties, he has agreed to assume responsibility for pregnancy- and birth-related expenses, the Utah Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The decision marks the first time an appeals court has considered how to apply a portion of the state's adoption statute that requires fathers seeking to retain their parental rights to pay a "fair and reasonable" amount of such expenses in a timely fashion.

The father in Thursday's ruling filed the paperwork seeking to be recognized as the child's father and agreed to pay future support; purchased child care supplies; gave the mother cash and maternity clothes; and wrote to her health care providers, asking to be billed for her costs.

But 3rd District Judge Roger Livingston decided the father's attempts at payment were not enough and terminated his parental rights, which meant the father's consent was not needed before his son was adopted one day after birth. Thursday's opinion reverses Livingston's finding and sends the case back to the trial court.

Considering the realities of modern medical billing and the mother's medical privacy rights, the father could not have done more to pay the bills without the mother's assistance, Judge Judith Billings wrote for the appeals court.

"He . . . did all he reasonably could do to pay the medical expenses before [the] mother consented to [the] child's adoption," Billings said.

The appellate judges concluded Livingston "erred in focusing solely on what the father actually paid."

They added: "In cases such as this . . . [the law] merely requires that the father agree to be legally responsible for expenses . . . and attest in his affidavit that he attempted to pay his reasonable share."

The judges acknowledged the ruling may lead to "disruption" in where the child lives, but noted the father visited the boy when he was 2 to 5 months old. The mother's attorney, Kristine Rogers, and the father's attorney, Sharon Preston, both of Salt Lake City, were not available for comment Thursday.

T he father in Thursday's ruling argued that the stringent compliance required by Utah's adoption laws violated his due process rights.

In defending the law, state attorneys said Utah has a strong interest in quickly resolving adoption cases and placing children with families.

When the father learned of the pregnancy in June 1998, he began purchasing child care supplies and maternity clothing, according to the court's opinion.

The father, identified in court records by the initials "S.H.," testified he regularly gave the mother, identified as "W.V," cash as well. Initials are used in adoption cases to protect the child's privacy.

The father attended a doctor's appointment and attempted to get insurance for the child, the opinion said.

The couple ended their relationship in October 1998, and the mother said she wanted to put the child up for adoption, the opinion said. The father objected, and completed two of the three requirements under Utah law to preserve his parental rights: He filed a complaint seeking to establish his paternity and registered with the Utah Department of Health.

His paternity complaint included an affidavit in which he consented to a court order requiring him to pay child support and his share of the expenses related to the pregnancy and birth.

The case hinged on his attempts to meet the third requirement to safeguard his rights to the child: paying his "fair and reasonable" amount of related expenses, in accordance with his means.

The father, who had hired an attorney, sent letters to the mother's medical providers, naming himself as the responsible party and asking that bills be sent to him. He also said in the affidavit that the mother had refused to allow him to pay or provide him with information about the expenses.

He tried to contact the mother before the birth, but she did not return his calls, the opinion said. He did not try to contact her in person, although he knew where she lived, until 12 days before the birth.

After the child was born in February 1999, the mother consented to an adoption the following day, the opinion said. After the boy was placed, the father sent a $1,000 check to the adoptive parents for partial reimbursement of expenses related to the pregnancy and birth, and had supervised visitation with the child from April to July.

The father underwent an exam to support his request for unsupervised visitation, which found he had "superior parenting knowledge and capacity." After Livingston's judgment terminated his parental rights, he appealed last year.

eneff@sltrib.com

© Copyright 2001, The Salt Lake Tribune.