Baby Vanessa Child Custody Battle Prompts Father Registry Bill

Provoked by the tragic “Baby Vanessa” story in California, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu is introducing new legislation to prevent child custody disputes when birth mothers lie on adoption forms. The purpose of the new bill, which would create a national putative father registry, is to protect fathers’ rights while focusing on the best interest of the child in question.

The story of baby Vanessa, originally reported by KNBC Los Angeles, is heartbreaking, but unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Courts have been struggling with these issues for decades.

Stacey Doss of Orange County, California, had raised Vanessa since birth, having worked with her birth mother and an adoption agency for a completely legitimate adoption. Vanessa’s birth mother said she had become pregnant after a one-night stand, and she told Doss that the father wasn’t in the picture.

“After Vanessa was born, she also signed a document, under penalty of perjury stating she didn’t know who the birth father was,” explained Doss.

Unfortunately, the birth mother was lying. It turns out that she did know the father, Benjamin Mills, Jr., of Ohio, and he did want custody of his child. Although Vanessa, now two, has lived with one parent since the day of her birth — her adoptive mother Stacey Doss — the courts have ordered that she must be turned over to Mills — a man she has never met.

When Do a Father’s Rights Outweigh a Child’s Emotional Ties?

A biological mother’s or father’s right to child custody is considered fundamental, and can only be taken away if it is shown in a court of law that the parent is unfit. While many legal scholars argue that the key issue in cases like this should be the best interest of the child, that constitutional right can’t just be wiped away.

In the Baby Vanessa case, the birth mother had her reasons to lie. Mills has four other children, none of whom he has custody of. He has previously been charged with child endangerment and has spent time in prison for domestic violence.

While Mills may not be the ideal candidate for a sympathetic fathers’ rights case, he is still a father, and he was not given the chance to seek his custody rights in court, where they could be fairly adjudicated. At the same time, Stacey Doss did nothing wrong; she is as much a victim of the lie as Mills.

The problem is, a choice between Mills or Doss is only a proxy for protecting Baby Vanessa’s best interests.

How Could a National Paternity Database Prevent These Tragedies?

According to Senator Landrieu, “In instances where unwed mothers are unable or unwilling to provide the identification of a child’s father, children need protections to prevent the disruption of adoptions and provide them with a safe and permanent home, while ensuring the rights of unmarried and unknowing fathers.”

More than half of the states currently have putative father registries which help family courts match up potential fathers with their children during the adoption process. The purpose of a national database would be to prevent cases like Baby Vanessa’s, where the adoption is taking place in different state from where the father lives.

“Congress passing the Promoting Adoption and Protecting Responsible Fatherhood Act would be a big step in the right direction,” says Landrieu in her blog, “and the most immediate way that we can help prevent future tragedies like that surrounding Baby Vanessa.”

Related Resources:

  • “Legislation to prevent more heartbreaking stories like Baby Vanessa” (The Hill’s Congress Blog (Sen. Mary Landrieu), July 19, 2010)
  • “The Battle For Baby Vanessa” (Robin Sax, The Huffington Post, July 7, 2010)
  • “The Battle for Vanessa” (KNBC Los Angeles, July 1, 2010)

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