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April 11th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The war against fathers and their children has opened a new front in Missouri with a bill sharply restricting the ability of single fathers to contest the adoption of their children.  The bill easily passed the Missouri House and is scheduled for hearings in committee in the Senate.  Read about it here (CBS Local, 4/9/12).

The bill is response to the Craig Lentz case in which Lentz prevailed in his six-year fight to stop the adoption and gain custody of his child.   Lentz’s success so enraged certain Missouri legislators and the state’s family bar that they’ve struck back at any future fathers who may be so bold as to stick up for their parental rights and the rights of their children to know and be cared for by their fathers.

The Lentz case is complicated in the extreme, but suffice it to say that he and his girlfriend, Ibaanika Bond, had a relationship, she became pregnant and wanted to place the child for adoption.  She relinquished her parental rights, but, when the child was born, Lentz still didn’t know if the child was his.  So he refused to acknowledge paternity until genetic testing showed that he was the child’s father.  Eventually it did, and he immediately took all necessary legal steps to assert his parental rights.

That was alright with Bond, but it wasn’t alright with the adoptive parents who fought long and hard to keep Lentz out of his child’s life.  They were assisted in that battle by the state trial court that did everything it could to deny Lentz the child for whom he was so clearly qualified to care.

But six years later, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled for Lentz.  His child is now his child. 

And apparently we can’t have that.  The bill that’s now before the Senate committee would make it impossible for a single father to contest the adoption of his child unless he could prove that he had done certain things:

Consistent prenatal financial support
Payment of prenatal and natal medical care for the mother and baby
Child support payments proportional with his ability to pay
Consistent contact and visitation with the child
Assistance with educational and medical care of the child

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.

He must have done all those things unless the mother actively kept him from doing them.  What active prevention by a mother means in the law is anyone’s guess, but presumably passive prevention is not part of it.  So telling him the child is another man’s may constitute active prevention while failing to tell him about a pregnancy would not.  What about moving out of town without telling him so that he couldn’t pay the required monies or have the required visitation time?  It’s anyone’s guess.

And, as one opponent of the bill points out, in Lentz’s case, the mother didn’t thwart Lentz at all.  Indeed, after she’d relinquished her rights, she decided that Lentz would make a good father and has always supported his efforts to get custody.  The people standing between Lentz and his child were always the adoptive parents. 

“This is a terrible law,” [attorney Robert] 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.

So, under the bill’s terms, Lentz would lose despite doing everything the law requires including filing the appropriate forms with the state’s putative father registry.

That of course brings up another obvious point; Missouri already makes it hard on fathers to stop the adoption of their children.  It does that via its putative father registry, but that’s now considered insufficient.  Stated another way, for fathers, there’s always a new, higher hurdle to jump.  The concept of abandonment worked for a while, but when fathers started stepping up to the plate, the state created a putative father registry.  That succeeded for a time in keeping fathers out of their children’s lives, but fathers like Lentz figured that one out too, so it’s now time for yet another requirement.

All of this occurs against a backdrop of United States Supreme Court precedents that say a state may not prejudice a person’s parental rights absent a showing that the person is unfit as a parent.  The bill requires no finding of unfitness, just the inability of a father to fight through maze of regulations erected by the legislature, while at the same time battling the antipathy of courts and adoptive parents.

Needless to say, the bill, if it becomes law, will adversely affect poor fathers more than anyone else.  With its emphasis on paying the mother, paying the doctors, paying the hospital and whomever else, it can’t help but disproportionately affect the poor.  But we’ve come to expect that.  As E. Wayne Carp, foremost historian of adoption in America told me years ago, the history of adoption in this country is, among other things, a record of the flow of children from the poor to the affluent.  The taking of the children of the poor by the well-heeled is just one of the many dark sides of the adoption business.

On that note, it’s time for me to repeat my usual mantra: when states force adoption on a child who has a qualified parent who wants to care it, it simultaneously denies adoption to a child who has no such parents and who needs adoption.  Each year in this country, about 75,000 stranger adoptions are completed.  Those are, generally speaking, non-stepparent adoptions.  But, at any given time, there are over 400,000 children in foster care whose parents have had their rights terminated.  Those children need parents; they need to be adopted.  And of course there are millions of children worldwide without parents who need adoption.

Someone should tell the people who so doggedly attempted to take Craig Lentz’s child from him, about all those other children.  If their hearts truly yearn for a child to adopt, there are literally millions who can fill the bill. 

Come to think of it, someone should tell the Missouri Legislature as well.

I’ve had some email contact with Ibaanika Bond.  The details of the Lentz case are far hairier than the brief, sanitized version I gave above.  At a later date, I’ll let readers know the extremes to which one couple and several courts went to keep a father from his child.

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