The XX Factor

The System for Establishing a Father’s Rights Hurts Both Men And Women

The current system doesn’t recognize that a father’s investment can’t always be measured in money.

Photo by geliatida/Shutterstock

Kevin Noble Maillard has written a fascinating piece for the Atlantic about Christopher Emanuel, a South Carolina man who struggled to gain custody of his daughter after her mother gave her up for adoption without telling him about it. The story exposes some major flaws in the adoption system that stem, in large part, from the knotty question of how to find balance between father’s rights and the well-being of children in a world where many fathers refuse to take responsibility. 

The story is a deeply sympathetic one. Emanuel, who is black, was dating a white woman when she became pregnant. Things went well for them at first—as their texting history shows—until her family found out. At this point, according to Emanuel, her openly racist parents—they called him, to his face, the N-word—started wedging him out of the picture and pushing her to give up the baby. She gave birth without telling him and gave the baby up for adoption before he knew she was born. 

It’s not entirely unreasonable to give women this right, despite the awfulness of Emanuel’s dilemma. A major concern is that a man can impregnate a woman and then just disappear, making it impossible for the woman to give the baby up for adoption without the man’s say-so.

Still, fathers have rights. As Maillard details, if a man can demonstrate that he did stick around and try to provide for the woman and child, then he has earned parental rights. Additionally, many states have a putative-father registry that a man can use to declare himself before the baby is born; the state is then required to inform him if the mother tries to give the baby up for adoption. The problem is that many fathers don’t know about the registry; in practice, it exists mostly to provide cover for adoptive families.

Emanuel did register, which helped his case. What really cinched it, though, was his text-messaging history, which showed everything from his great excitement about welcoming his daughter to the world to his concern about the mother’s day-by-day blood-sugar levels. He won custody, but only after demonstrating that he had the means to provide for his daughter as well as an emotional investment. As Maillard writes:

“Even though we’ve had progress in the active role that men take in their children’s lives, the state still defines breadwinning as the definitive component of fatherhood,” said Deborah Dinner, an associate professor of family law at Washington University. Staying in good standing can mean as little as an automated direct deposit, but anything less than an actual offer of money is considered by law to be “vague and conditional.” Even if the woman disappears or issues a restraining order, the man’s potential support must be tangible and ready, like escrow. 

Men can gain paternal rights, Maillard adds, by being “persistent, aggressive, and proactive in offering money even when the mother rejects it or refuses contact.”

The system makes life hard for good men like Emanuel, and it has real dangers for women as well. If a woman is trying to get away from an abusive man and is considering adoption to cut ties completely, it seems that all her abuser has to do is give her money—or try to—and potentially gain a foothold back in her life. If a man can use money to block the adoption, it will make it that much easier to stay in her life or even guilt her back into a relationship.

The system clearly needs major reform. We could start by finding a better way to define what it means to be an involved father.