Adoption hinges on locating the father Judges are requiring intensive searches to 'prevent hardship'

September 08, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

When an Essex woman wanted to give her newborn son up for adoption, finding him a good home was not the biggest problem -- finding the baby's father was.

Five months into the pregnancy, the father disappeared and could not be reached for approval. And that raised a disturbing prospect: that his last-minute objection could overturn the adoption and upset everyone involved.

To prevent such problems, judges around the nation are demanding that adoption agencies and birth mothers scour postal records, driving records -- even a favorite hangout -- to locate the birth father. Once a legal notice is served, he can consent to the adoption -- or waive his parental rights by not responding.

The approach in Baltimore County, where birth fathers are hard to find or uncooperative in about half of the 350 adoptions annually, illustrates the trend.

"I've been cautious about it to prevent hardship to the adoptive parents, the child and the natural parents," says Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan, one of two judges who oversee adoption hearings in Baltimore County.

Routinely, he asks agencies to contact the Motor Vehicle Administration, post office and last-known relative or employer to find the birth father's address. Sometimes, lawyers and adoption agencies search out his favorite haunts or hire investigators and process servers who use creative, even sneaky, ways to locate him.

For example, to obtain a father's phone number, they might phone relatives and say he has won a prize, is invited to asurprise party or has received a job offer.

"There's no question that the trend in the law -- which continues to favor the rights of natural parents -- means those parents have to be found if they can be," says Irwin R. Kramer, an Owings Mills lawyer whose practice includes adoptions.

In recent years, he added, he has seen "an increase in sensitivity to that issue."

Adds Mark A. Hardin, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, "In those situations where the law requires the father to be notified, many agencies are taking extra care to actually locate the father."

In recent years, two highly publicized adoptions were overturned because birth fathers had not consented. "Baby Richard," adopted in Illinois as an infant, was returned at age 4 to his birth parents as neighbors of the adoptive family shouted angrily. In a Michigan case, "Baby Jessica" was returned to her birth parents at age 3.

That's what Adoptions Together Inc., a private agency with offices in Pikesville and Kensington, tried to avoid in the Essex woman's case.

During her pregnancy, Sandi -- who would not allow her full name used to shield the anonymity of the baby's biological father -- and the 33-year-old short-order cook were getting counseling to be sure adoption was the right decision.

But when she was 5 1/2 months pregnant, "he went away for a while, I don't know where," Sandi recalls. His sister didn't know where he was, either, and calls to his job, home and pager went unanswered.

The day after the Feb. 18 birth, the baby went home with prospective adoptive parents from Silver Spring -- Jamie, an architect, and Dolores, a fund-raiser for a nonprofit group in Washington.

Sandi signed a form terminating her parental rights, but the birth father still had not been found to do the same. On March 29, the adoption agency served a legal notice at his job, stating that he had 30 days to contest the adoption. Sandi feared he would.

"He called right before the papers were served, and basically he was saying he couldn't allow the adoption to go through. The agency would have had to completely drop the case as if we had never come there," she said.

As the adoptive couple heard rumors of the birth father's misgivings, they canceled a baby shower and a trip to Richmond, Va., to introduce the baby to Jamie's family. Meanwhile, they were "counting down the days," recalls Jamie, who asked that his last name not be used to prevent a last-minute complication.

When the wait was over -- and no word came from the biological father -- Jamie and Dolores celebrated with family and friends. "It took a few days for us to really start believing it, but at the same time there was a big sense of relief immediately," he says, describing Ian as "remarkably cute."

This fall, the adoption is expected to be made final by a county judge.

Mothers sometimes do not want to tell authorities the father's identity for fear he will complicate matters. In other cases, he is not well known by the mother and cannot be found. And as in Sandi's case, the couple's connection can be severed.

"We follow up on every lead we have," says Janice Goldwater, executive director of Adoptions Together. "We have to demonstrate to the court that we've exercised every opportunity to locate him."

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