Unmarried Fathers May Lose Parental Rights in Missouri

A child usually benefits from having two parents involved in his or her life. A mother or father's parental rights should therefore only be terminated in rare circumstances, when the best interests of the child are fully considered and truly require it.

But a current legislative proposal aims to make it easier for the parental rights of unmarried fathers to be terminated. If fathers fail to meet certain conditions, HB 1258 would allow adoptions to go forward without the father's consent. The bill has already passed the Missouri House.

Background of the Missouri Adoption Bill

The bill was drafted in response to the Lentz case heard by the Missouri Supreme Court. The case was brought by the father of a child in hopes of gaining custody of his son and preventing an adoption from going forward.

The father was at the child's birth and stayed with the mother and child in the hospital. He was not listed on the child's birth certificate, however, because he was not certain of his paternity at the time of the birth.

The father failed to file with the putative father registry or file an action for paternity within 15 days of the birth of the child as Missouri law requires. The courts then allowed the mother to move forward with adoption proceedings without the father's consent.

After adoption proceedings commenced, and a DNA test confirmed his paternity, the father filed with the putative father registry and intervened in the case. This was the start of a six-year battle over the fate of the child. The circuit court twice attempted to terminate the father's parental rights, but was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court and Missouri Court of Appeals. Finally last summer, the father regained custody of his son.

Bill Aims to More Easily Terminate Fathers' Rights

Of course a long court battle over the custody of a child takes a toll on all concerned. The recent adoption bill, however, attempts to prevent such situations by doing something equally if not more detrimental to children - taking away the rights of unmarried fathers.

HB 1258 allows for an adoption to take place over the father's objection if he has not fostered a "consistent and substantial relationship with the child." According to the bill, in order to establish such a relationship a father must do the following unless "actively thwarted from doing so by the mother":

  • Provide ongoing prenatal financial support
  • Consistent payment of medical care for the baby and mother
  • Make child support payments relative with his ability to pay
  • Have consistent visitation and contact with the child
  • Assist with the child's education and medical care

The bill seeks to clarify when a father would be allowed to intervene in adoption proceedings. However, the bill lacks any protection for fathers in certain circumstances, such as when a mother never informs the father of her pregnancy, or if prospective adoptive parents prevent the father from contacting his child. Moreover, if the parents are unmarried, the father may be unable to cover the mother under his medical insurance, or he may not even have insurance to cover medical expenses.

If the bill were to become law, the father in the Lentz case would not have been able to gain custody of his son. According to his attorney, the father was prevented from having consistent contact with his son because of the actions of the potential adoptive parents and the court.

Rep. Rory Ellinger (D-University City) is a legislator who has voiced strong opposition to the bill, saying it showed class bias. Middle to upper class couples tend to be the families who seek to adopt, and lower class mothers more often put children up for adoption. Ellinger feels the bill is written to favor potential adoptive families at the expense of biological fathers.

Another lawmaker who has spoken out against the bill is Rep. Brandon Ellington (D-Kansas City). He feels the bill is biased against fathers, explaining that it does not factor in situations where a strained relationship between the mother and father may prevent the father from meeting the established criteria, or circumstances where the mother may not be acting in the child's best interests, such as by abusing support payments.

Despite this opposition, the bill overwhelming passed in the house by a vote of 126 to 15. It now moves onto the Senate for consideration.

If you are a father wanting to establish paternity of your child, contact a lawyer to discuss your rights. An experienced family law attorney can help ensure you take whatever actions are required to protect your parental rights.