Monday, March 31, 2008

Your Legal Movie Review

I finally saw the Oscar-winning movie Juno, which was pretty good -- although I did think some of the characters were unrealistically quick-witted for alleged teenagers. But my real interest was, naturally, in the legal aspects of the movie. You need to know the basics of the plot, but it's hardly a spoiler to say that the film is about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant and decides to have the baby but to give it up to a childless couple in a private adoption.

Here's the thing: did you notice that everyone (including the lawyer whom the adopting couple hires to ensure the adoption goes off legally) assumes that the decision to give up the baby belongs entirely to the biological mother? What about the father? Doesn't he have anything to say about it? No one seems to think that it's necessary even to ask his opinion, much less get his permission. Even he just sits on the sidelines and does hardly anything for the entire movie.

After doing a little research (all right, what I really did was to ask one of my colleagues who has expertise in this area), I was somewhat surprised to discover that the movie got it right: a biological father who exhibits no interest in asserting parental rights does not have to be consulted before his child is adopted and his parental rights terminated.

Does this make sense? In the age of the more-involved father -- an age in which, in fact, there's a big societal push from those who support women's rights to encourage fathers to play a more active role in child-rearing -- it seems unfair to say that the father would be on the hook for child support if the mother chose to seek it, but that he has no right to claim his child if the mother wants to put it up for adoption.

Fortunately, the matter is not quite so simple -- the biological father's rights are not automatically terminable by the mother's choice to put the baby up for adoption. But the father needs to take more active steps to assert his rights. Had Paulie, the father in the movie, wanted to raise the baby, he would first have had to register with the state's "putative father registry" (luckily for him, Minnesota has one -- only about half the states do). Then he would at least be entitled to notice that Juno was planning to put the baby up for adoption. But even then, state law might or might not recognize his right to the child. He might be limited to being able to keep the child if he could show that that was in the child's best interests.

Normally, a state can't take a child away from its biological parents without their consent unless they are shown to be unfit. Parents otherwise have a right to their children, even if it would be in the child's best interests to be raised by somebody else. But an unmarried biological father may not have such rights under state law. He may be required to take active steps to assume parental responsibilities, and some states have pretty strict requirements. A biological mother who acted badly in the period immediately after her child's birth wouldn't be in this situation -- the father (if he were around) couldn't decide to put the child up for adoption without her permission just because she wasn't taking what state law regarded as a sufficiently active role in raising it. She'd have to be shown to be unfit.

Well, it's a complicated area. Giving biological fathers too much rights to their children could put them in a position to keep adoptions in limbo for a long time, which would be harmful to the child, especially if the father had no real interest in the child and was just acting out of spite or some other improper motive. And it would be too much to require the father's consent in a case in which the father has disappeared or is otherwise unreachable. But there is some tension between the societal desire to encourage fathers to take a more active role in raising their children and telling unwed biological fathers that they may have no protected right to do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.