The war on fathers’ rights in adoption proceedings continues and fathers are starting to win a few battles, like the one described in this article (Toledo Blade, 9/24/10) and this Ohio Supreme Court opinion (Leagle, 7/22/10).

Benjamin Wyrembek had a brief affair with a married woman. She became pregnant in 2007 and, along with her husband, decided to place the child for adoption. Wyrembek had no way of knowing if the child was his or not and possibly neither did the woman, although neither the article nor the opinion says. But he timely filed his claim of paternity with the Ohio Putative Father Registry and brought suit in juvenile court in December, 2007 to establish paternity. In January, 2008, the adoptive parents, Jason and Christy Vaughn, filed their suit to adopt the child.

Genetic testing determined that the child is Wyrembek’s and every court has since ruled in his favor. Basically, he’s the biological father who’s done every legal thing in his power to get custody of his son and every court has ruled that the adoption can’t go forward. It seems that biological fathers have a few rights after all; it seems that the many United States Supreme Court cases so ruling actually mean something.

But, you may ask, “it’s been almost three years since genetic testing determined Wyrembek’s paternity; why does he still not have possession of his son?” Well, the answer is that adoption attorneys for many years have understood that when they’re caught trying to force adoption on a child who doesn’t need to be adopted because it has a fit father who wants it, the best thing to do is to stall.

In the past, that tactic worked well. Years of litigation often mean that fathers run out of money and give up. Personally, I’ve encountered cases in which the dad sees his child growing up in the household of another couple and comes to believe that, as much as he wants his child, as much as he’s entitled to be his/her dad, it’s better for the child for him to just walk away. So he does.

And in the past courts have ruled that, whatever the law on fathers’ rights may be, after a certain amount of time has passed, the best interests of the child demand that the dad butt out and the child remain in its adoptive home.

So adoption attorneys believe that stalling is, if not right, at least effective. Their credo is “if you keep father and child separated long enough, maybe the adoption will happen.” As the Blade article none too subtlely puts it,

On Tuesday, the Vaughns were served with an order from Lucas County Juvenile Court to hand over the nearly 3-year-old boy named Grayson to Mr. Wyrembek, prompting their attorney to file another flurry of motions to prevent the surrender.

That’s a pretty accurate description of what’s been going on since early 2008. Face it, everyone in the case knew almost three years ago that Wyrembek was the boy’s father. Then, or at any time since then, they could have done the right thing and turned the boy over to him, but they didn’t. The attorney kept filing motions, kept filing appeals and, the judicial system being what it is, time passed – a lot of it.

By now, that’s the Vaughn’s only claim – that their keeping the child in their custody in the face of every court ruling against them constitutes some sort of right that trumps those of the boy’s father. As I said, in the past that often worked. But it doesn’t any longer.

Now courts in Ohio and many other states are starting to take the rights of biological fathers far more seriously than ever before. The narrow ruling in the Ohio case is that a biological father has one year from the time his paternity is established to file suit to stop the adoption of his child. That means that mothers can no longer hide a child or a child’s paternity from a father and deprive him of his parental rights via adoption. A father’s rights can’t be diminished or terminated until he knows he’s the dad; once he does, he’s got a year in which to act.

Amazingly enough, the attorney for the Vaughns and the article in the Toledo Blade want us to believe that Benjamin Wyrembek doesn’t care about his child. They cite the fact that he hasn’t communicated with his child during the course of the protracted litigation. Of course the idea that he might be trying to consider his child’s feelings and not intrude unduly into his life seems never to have occurred to them. Whatever his reasons, the idea that a man will spend however much time, money and emotional energy over three years pursuing custody, but at the same time doesn’t care about the child is borderline crazy.

The takeaway? The rights of biological fathers in adoption cases are no longer the pushovers they once were. This case and others stand for the proposition that, in adoption cases, courts will no longer allow mothers to control fathers’ rights. A mother’s hiding the child or hiding information about the child’s paternity will no longer suffice to deprive a father of his parental rights. It’s a win for dads.

Robert Franklin, Esq., is a board member of Fathers and Families, America’s largest family court reform organization. To learn more, see www.fathersandfamilies.org. 

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