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November 29, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve often wondered about “Baby Moses” laws. They’re the ones that allow a parent to relinquish a newborn without fear of criminal charges of child abuse, neglect, abandonment, or the like. All 50 states have Baby Moses laws. Usually those laws require that the child be left at certain places, such as hospitals, emergency rooms, fire stations, etc., and within a prescribed period of time. In Texas, where this story takes place, that period is 60 days after birth (KSAT, 11/26/15). And of course the child must be free of injury or any indication of abuse.

If those requirements of the law are met, the parent can walk away from the child, no questions asked.

Baby Moses laws raise questions regarding parental rights. If one parent turns a child over to one of the designated places, in full compliance with the particular state’s statute, what happens to the other parent’s parental rights? For that matter, what happens to the first parent’s rights? What if the original parent changes her/his mind and returns for the child later?

On its face, a Baby Moses law says nothing about parental rights, only the freedom from a charge of criminal wrongdoing. And yet, if Mom turns a newborn over to one of the designated places, what happens to Dad’s parental rights? What if Dad visits his new baby in the hospital, marches out the door and hands the child over to the emergency room that’s adjacent the same hospital?

As a practical matter, the parent who turns the child over deprives the other of his/her parental rights. After all, even if the second parent finds out about what the first parent did, how is it possible to locate the child and assert one’s rights? It’s possible, but unlikely.

But what if the second parent does locate the child and assert his/her rights? Did the first parent lose those rights by virtue of the fact that he/she abandoned the child? If the second parent gets custody of the child, does the first parent have to pay child support?

The questions are many, but the linked-to article isn’t interested in any of them. They’re important actors in a play, but they’re never allowed onstage. It’s a feel-good story that only feels good if those questions aren’t asked.

Now 4 years old, Isabella Grace’s adoptive parents said they are grateful each and every day for the second chance her birth mother gave her.

Laurie and Jason Cobb said that’s why they chose the middle name Grace to signify how her mother used the Baby Moses Law to turn over her newborn at a San Antonio Fire Station.

“I want her mom to know that she did the right thing, that she left her at safe place,” said Bella’s adoptive mother.

Her adoptive father said, “That would be difficult for me to do, but in the same breath, I thank God for it.”…

Her adoptive mother said Bella is an example for desperate mothers who believe they have nowhere to turn.

“Look at how well this baby is doing when placed in the right loving and happy home,” she said.

Bella’s adoptive father said it’s a privilege having her in their lives.

“It’s an honor. I can’t say that enough,” he said.

He said when they adopted Bella less than a year after they first saw her in the hospital, “It was the best day of our lives.”

They were notified about Bella by Child Protective Services and their foster to adopt agency, soon after a baby they were fostering was reunited with its family.

In short, four years ago, Bella’s mother left her at a fire station. The child was placed with Child Protective Services who took the child to a hospital. CPS contacted the Cobbs who began the process of adopting the newborn. From everything the article tells us, this is a success story – a child with no parent to care for her taken into a loving home in which she’s happy, healthy and bright.

Of course we all hope this is the success story it appears to be. But the question arises “Where’s Dad?” Well, we probably know where he is – lost to the state’s putative father registry. My guess is that we don’t know who Mom is. She dropped the child off anonymously, as she’s entitled to do under Texas law.

But how did the court that finalized the adoption go about terminating her rights? What’s to prevent her from showing up and asserting those rights, after proving her maternity via genetic testing? How did the court give her notice of the adoption proceedings? Did it give her notice?

The chances are those issues aren’t important. She gave up the child and has likely moved on with her life.

But what about Dad? As is so often the case, the termination of his rights is a much simpler matter. If he didn’t file the appropriate form at the appropriate time with the Texas Paternity Registry, the adoption court was perfectly within the law to terminate his parental rights and finalize the adoption of his child without his knowledge or consent. That’s why the registry exists – to remove biological fathers from the process whereby their children are given to others to raise.

Would Bella’s father have cared that he lost his rights and his child? We’ll never know. Had he known, he might have been relieved. But he might have been enraged; he might have moved heaven and earth to stop the adoption. But he was probably never contacted by the court, so he remains voiceless.

Texas’ Baby Moses law didn’t take his parental rights; the state’s paternity registry did that. But the two, working hand in hand, made the process about as easy and certain of denying the father any input into the adoption process as is possible to imagine.

Why didn’t the dad register the possibility of his paternity with the TPR? I’d be willing to bet that he’d never heard of it. That’s because Texas spends exactly no money to publicize its registry or the legal consequences of failing to file the right form within the right time. Indeed, in the 17 years of the registry’s existence, The Texas Department of Health has never bought a billboard, written an op-ed or made a public service announcement explaining to men what the TPR is.

Unsurprisingly, Texas men don’t know. My own informal survey of 100 men in Houston found not a one who’d even heard of the TPR.

Then there’s the matter of the forms. By law, they’re supposed to be made available by a variety of entities, public and private, including hospitals, Justices of the Peace, Vital Records offices, etc. But when I, posing as someone who suspected he might have fathered a child with an unmarried woman, tried to actually obtain a form to file, I struck out. None of the places I tried had ever heard of the TPR or had the form I was seeking.

In short, the State of Texas doesn’t make it easy for unmarried men to assert their parental rights. That’s no accident. The policy in the state is to make adoption as simple as possible. But, as in other states, that results in forcing adoption on children with perfectly fit fathers who are eager to care for them, or would be, if they knew what was going on.

And, as I’ve said before, the ironic result of the drive to facilitate adoptions is that fewer kids who need adopting are adopted. Because there’s a scarcity of good, loving adoptive parents, when we force adoption on a child who doesn’t need it, we deny those parents to a child somewhere in the country or the world who does. That’s not just morally wrong, it’s wrong on the very terms on which putative father registries have been established – that we want children who need parents to have them.

Would Bella’s father have asserted his rights given the opportunity? Would he have proven a fit parent if he had? No one can answer those questions. But what we do know is that, thanks to wrongheaded Texas laws, he’ll never get the chance.

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