The bill, which is now making its way through the General Assembly to the Senate, was written in response to the 2007 Lentz case presented to the state Supreme Court.
In 2004, Craig Lentz and girlfriend Ibbaanika Bond had a child. Lentz did not have his name put on the birth certificate because he was waiting for the results of a DNA test to prove he was the father of the child.
Missouri law requires that a father must declare paternity within 15 days of a child's birth. While waiting to receive the results of the test, the 15 days had passed. After this time, the child was placed in the home of the Taylor couple in Texas, for the purpose of adoption. The child was placed temporarily with the Taylor's, agreeing to help the mother, Ibbaanika. The couple filed a petition for transfer of custody and adoption of the child, which stated the father was unknown. The mother agreed to the adoption.
When Lentz was notified of the adoption proceedings, he filed with the putative father registry and an amended birth certificate was issued, listing Lentz as the father. Lentz sought to intervene in the adoption, claiming that he was the father of the child.The legal battle lasted for six years. Robert E. Arnold III, Lentz's lawyer, said his client regained custody of his child at the end of last summer.
A bill presented in the House would allow the adoption of a child to take place without the consent of the father, if he has not previously developed a consistent and substantial relationship with the child.
The definition of "consistent and substantial relationship," has not been specifically defined in Missouri law. The bill seeks to express clearly the actions a father must take to develop a consistent and substantial relationship.
Unless actively thwarted from doing so by the mother, the father must provide:
Professor Mary Beck at the University of Missouri School of Law wrote the bill. She said this bill was written in response to the Lentz case. She said one of the goals was to clear up confusion on who could intervene in an adoption.
"It (the bill) spells out what a father needs to do to protect his constitutional parental rights," Beck said.
She said the bill also specifies to judicial circuits when the father has not protected his parental rights, and when the child can be adopted and gain permanency with a family and home.
Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, said he is strongly against the bill. He said in the case of a woman getting pregnant and deciding not to tell the father, that this bill would not only deprive the man of the right to be a father, but would also get him out of his duty to pay child support.
Beck, along with at least 10 other attorneys in Missouri who are members of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys united to create the bill.
Beck said the opinion in the Lentz case has led to different interpretations by different judicial circuits in the state. She said the bill attempts to clarify the position of the legislature on the issue.
Arnold said the bill was an attempt to fix the law, because of the confusion in the Lentz case. He said many legislators wanted to strengthen the adoption laws and make it clear to the judiciary what the legislative intent was in such cases. However, he said he believes the bill restricts the constitutional rights of father-child relationships, and they did not get the language right.
"This is a terrible law," Arnold said.
He said he would suggest changing "actively thwarted by the mother or the child," to include other entities, such as the court or prospective adoptive parents. Arnold said in the Lentz case, the court and the prospective adoptive parents thwarted Lentz from consistent contact and visitation with the child by limiting his visitation.
In close cases, such as the Lentz case, the laws in Missouri make it difficult for judges and attorneys to know how to proceed. Beck said the bill spells out what the law is.
"We won't have close cases anymore, it will either be this way or it won't be this way," Beck said.With this bill, Arnold said Lentz would not have been able to fight for custody of his son, because he would not have met the five criteria spelled out in the bill.
If a father's name is not listed on the birth certificate, the father must take certain actions in order to gain custody of the child, such as:
The bill means to define consistent financial and custodial responsibility as developing a relationship with the child and providing financial support.Other states have passed similar legislation. In Illinois, consent is not required when a parent has deserted, failed to communicate or provide support for the child. In Iowa, consent is not needed if a parent has signed a release of custody or abandoned and failed to support the child. The same is true in Arkansas, but the parent must fail to assume parental responsibilities for two years.
"I think it's fair to say that the state wants to protect the rights of men who assume financial and custodial responsibility for their children," Beck said. "But we don't want to prevent children from going to adoption where fathers object, but don't step up to the plate and don't assume legal, custodial and financial responsibility."
Ellinger said the majority of the time lower class mothers put their children up for adoption, while middle and upper class couples are generally the ones to adopt. He said the bill was legislative class bias at its worst.
Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, also said he believes this bill is biased against men. He said the bill does not take into account the social factors of the mother and father, and the father may not be able to meet the criteria, because the relationship is strained. In such cases he said, the mother may not have the child's best interest in mind and abuses the father's support payments.
Ellington said that parents should always have the right to their children before anyone else.
The bill was passed in the House 126 to 15. It has been read in the Senate, and referred to the Senate's Health Committee.
Adoption attorney and executive director at A Gift of Hope Adoptions in Columbia, Dewey Crepau, said this bill is an improvement to Missouri law. He said there is always some concern that an unknown father will show up in the six months it takes to complete the adoption.
Crepau said the cases in which a father intervenes are not frequent, but when they do occur the effects on the adoptive parents are devastating. Beck said the bill seeks to gain permanency for children whether the child is with a responsible father or with an adoptive couple. She said the bill is an attempt to improve Missouri law. Arnold, Lentz's attorney, disagrees and said he thinks the bill is an inappropriate attempt at improvement.