Nowadays, the courts like to think of themselves as equal parenting proponents. When a couple divorces, thanks to competent family lawyers, most of America’s progressive judges will readily agree to 50/50 custody — unless the parents agree to an alternate schedule, or if there are extenuating circumstances that limit one parent’s ability to perform his or her duties. Unfortunately, these same rights don’t always carry over into custody arrangements when the couple has not been married, and some dads are learning the hard way that the courts aren’t inherently designed to protect fathers’ rights.
A heart-wrenching saga three years in the making has finally come to a close.
Chris Emanuel, a 25-year-old from South Carolina, and his girlfriend hit it off right away. The couple met at a manufacturing facility where they both worked as forklift drivers. It wasn’t long before the pair began seeing each other outside of work, too, and a short while into their courtship, the couple found out they were expecting a baby. Emanuel attended doctor’s visits, kept in continual contact with his girlfriend, and they discussed moving in together.
Everything seemed great, up until they set a date to meet her parents.
The woman’s father refused to attend, and Emanuel says his mother was cold throughout their initial introduction. It was then that the mother-to-be started behaving differently. She avoided seeing Emanuel, began excluding him from doctor’s appointments, and even missed a baby shower put on by Emanuel’s family. As the baby’s due date drew closer, Emanuel’s girlfriend became increasingly distant. She assured him that she’d let him know when she went into labor, and sent him pictures of herself showing that she was still pregnant. The problem was, she wasn’t pregnant anymore. Not only had she already delivered the baby, but she had also given her up for adoption.
Thankfully, Emanuel had registered in the Responsible Father Registry, though that didn’t grant him immediate access to his daughter. Throughout the pregnancy, the expectant father’s friends noticed his girlfriend’s erratic behavior, and urged him to add his name to the Responsible Father Registry. It’s a state-run service that notifies potential fathers if a child is placed for adoption. A little more than half of the states offer a similar program. Though Emanuel didn’t act on their urgings right away, he did register when the mother missed her baby shower, and he was notified of the adoption proceedings shortly after his daughter’s birth. To complicate matters, the baby girl was adopted by an out-of-state couple, and Emanuel had to obtain a lawyer to fight for his paternal rights. His history with the mother, including text messages and proof that he supported her throughout the pregnancy, indicated that he was indeed an involved father, but being on the registry enabled him to act on his rights.
A similar case, involving 80s star Jason Patric, unfolded in California just a couple of years ago. His situation was a little different because he and his girlfriend had been together for years before their child was conceived. However, because the baby came about through in vitro fertilization, the mother argued that Patric was merely a sperm donor, even though he spent years raising his son. When the couple severed ties, the mother divided father and son, with the court’s blessing. In a secondary hearing with a domestic violence attorney in San Diego, Patric used a document from the in vitro center to show that he intended to co-parent, and he additionally provided the judge with family videos that clearly showed the mother pointing to photos of him and telling the baby who his father is. Eventually, Patric was given rights to his son, but the two were separated for more than a year while the case unraveled.
Although justice (and the best interests of the children) was served, both of these children were separated from their fathers for an extended period of time before the courts corrected the problem. If you think you may be a father, or believe that a woman you were with possibly conceived, use your state’s Responsible Father Registry. Even if things appear to be going well, it’s an absolute essential for unwed fathers. It’s also advisable that you speak with the baby’s mother in advance, and ensure that your name goes on the birth certificate. If your child has been taken from you in similar circumstances, time is of the essence. The court will be looking at a timeline of your actions, and the sooner you respond or register, the more likely you will have success in exercising your parental rights.