‘Deadbolt dads’ disenfranchised by bad laws
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By Georgialee Lang

OUR culture coined the term ‘deadbeat dad,’ a pejorative for fathers who fail to pay child support. Recently, a new phrase has joined our lexicon, as the plight of ‘deadbolt dads’ has emerged as a critical issue.

A deadbolt dad is a biological father who is precluded from exercising his paternal role because the mother of his child has chosen not to notify him of the birth of his child, and has declined to acknowledge him as the birth father on the child’s birth registration form.

The emergence of this phenomenon is due in part to increased rates of birth to unmarried women; however, there is very little accessible data on the number of births which are registered without a father designation.  

Rubber stamp

Another unknown father played his anonymous role in New Westminster’s Supreme Court several weeks ago.  In the case of Adoption Act and Male Child B.C. Birth Registration Number 06-014023, childless parents who wished to adopt an infant male filed the requisite documents in the court.  

They expected the usual judicial rubber stamp, without a court hearing (which regularly follows once the criteria set out in B.C.’s Adoption Act have been met).

However, Master Caldwell of the Supreme Court paused, reflected on the law and said “No” – in an articulate analysis of law and policy concerning the rights of fathers to be notified of the proposed adoption of their biological child.

The Master – a Supreme Court judicial officer similar to a Provincial Court Judge – held that the concept of notice and the transparency of court proceedings are central to our system of justice in Canada.

In his view, the lack of notice to the child’s father and the “behind closed doors” decision-making permitted by court practice was flawed. Master Caldwell affirmed a citizen’s right to be heard before his liberty, property rights or family rights are disposed of by judicial proceedings.

He declared that these tenets of law represented the foundation of Canadian jurisprudence, and boldly stated:

“When the legislature enacts in clear and explicit terms that persons may be deprived of their liberty or property or family rights without notice and without the right to be heard, the courts will no doubt faithfully carry out such enactments. If that time should come, the courts will probably be mere instruments of the government and not courts of justice as we understand them – and the constitutional rights of the subject will be gone.”

Well, friends, that day has arrived. On the adoptive parents’ appeal to a justice of the Supreme Court, the appellate judge found that the Adoption Act clearly articulates the persons from whom consent to a proposed adoption must be obtained. A birth father who has no knowledge of the birth of his child and who has not been declared by the birth mother as the child’s biological father on the birth registration form need not be notified that he has fathered a child, as his consent is not necessary.  

The learned Justice reasoned that, because the father has no legal obligation to care for or maintain and support the child, and because he has not registered with the Birth Father’s Registry, there was no requirement for his agreement to the adoption – and therefore no notice was required.

Irony  

Ironically, however, if the same birth mother, providing no notice to the father of a child’s birth and refusing to acknowledge him on the birth registration form, opted to keep her child and not have him adopted, she would have every right to ask a court to declare paternal status and to expect child support for the child – until the child completed his first university degree. In fact, in certain circumstances the state would compel her to do so.  

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Also ironic is the fact that the Appeal Judge implicitly found that if the father had registered in the Birth Father’s Registry, he would be entitled to notice of the adoption. She conveniently failed to consider how a man who did not know he was a father could avail himself of the father’s registry!

However, some fathers are fighting back – and winning.  In the Supreme Court of West Virginia, an appellate judge upheld a jury verdict of $7.8 million in damages to a father whose former girlfriend gave up his child for adoption without his consent. The couple had dated for several years, but broke up shortly before the woman knew she was pregnant.

She traveled to California and retained an adoption lawyer to assist her to place the child, who was adopted by a couple from Calgary.

The father learned of the pending adoption, and obtained a court order in West Virginia barring the adoption until paternity was established. However, the mother and her attorney ignored the order. A West Virginia jury denounced the behaviour of the mother and her lawyer, and determined the  lawyer was responsible for $5 million of the award.

Her parents and brother, who assisted her in her attempt to interfere in the father’s parental relationship with the child, were also held liable. The court found that any person who plots, plans, schemes or otherwise conspires to intentionally and willfully conceal information from a parent about the birth of a child or the physical location of a child, may be held liable for participating in such a conspiracy.

Respect for fathers

How did we get to a point in our society where respect for fathers has been diluted – to the extent that B.C.’s much-heralded Adoption Act of 1996 blatantly, and without rigorous debate or public scrutiny, tramples their basic rights?  

In pre-Industrial Revolution times, fathers played a central role in their children’s lives. Fathers taught their children how to work, and worked along side them. Fathers guided and directed their children in matters both spiritual and educational.

In Genesis 18:19, God said he would bless  Abraham if he directed his household and children to “keep the way of the Lord.”

 With industrialization, fathers no longer worked at home – but spent endless hours in the factory, away from their families.

Prior to the 1960s, many behavioural scientists believed fathers were relatively unimportant to a child’s healthy development. Anthropologist Margaret Mead noted: “Fathers are a biological necessity, but a social accident.”

However, the critical role of fathers in their children’s lives was supported by research emerging in the 1990s. Children of highly involved fathers show enhanced school performance, social development, self-esteem, sexual identity and intrinsic motivation.

Disenfranchised fathers deserve better. Legislation is required to reinforce the 21st century role of fathers in the context of the modern family.

Canadian lawmakers need to pay heed to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which affirms that children have the right to have their identity, including family relations, recognized by law. Fatherhood needs to be offered status and equality.

GeorgiaLee Lang is a Vancouver lawyer.

November 2007