Let’s talk about fathers for a second. One critique of child welfare law is that it puts a significant burden on mothers while essentially ignoring fathers until they become inconvenient. Two cases out of Florida this month highlight this phenomenon.
In the first case, twin children were sheltered from their mother due to neglect. The father had been out-of-state in prison on drug charges for the twins’ whole life. He met the children only once when the mother brought them to see him while he was on a furlough pass. Once the case was commenced, he appeared at every hearing by phone and called the children during his furloughs — but not while in prison, he said, because he could only make collect calls. After the mother did not comply with her case plan, the Department filed for TPR on both parents. While the trial was pending, the mother died in a car accident. The father then learned that he would be released from prison five days after the scheduled TPR trial. He had a place to live and a job lined up. There children were not in a pre-adoptive home. The Court terminated his rights anyway. The First DCA reversed the termination.
In the second case, a child was sheltered at birth after testing positive for cocaine. The mother was married, but estranged from her husband. The biological father was on the birth certificate. Under the law, this scenario makes the husband the legal father. The family was advised how to fix the paternity issues and the biological father was sent away until he addressed his legal status. He filed a notice with the Putative Father Registry, but took no other action. A year passed, the mother did not comply with her case plan, and the biological father then filed legal motions to establish his rights to the child after TPR was already filed. The Fourth DCA held that the year and a half delay was too long — he had no parental rights because he was not fast enough in legally asserting them.
The problem here is twofold: first that the system was perfectly happy to ignore the fathers until they asserted their rights against a TPR; and second that the fathers appeared content (or at least not incentivized) to let the mothers do all the hard work to get the kids back until they failed. The trial judge in the First DCA case terminated a father’s rights despite no clear plan for permanency for the child — the children would have to build a relationship with either the father or a pre-adoptive family — and despite no apparent effort to actually nurture that relationship for over a year. (The mother, not the State, took the child to see the father on his furlough in Mississippi before the case came in.) The Fourth DCA, in its written opinion, unfavorably compared its bio father’s effort to those shown by the foster parents’ — a poor comparison given that the whole child welfare system is designed to recruit, train, and support foster parents (well, comparatively speaking), whereas the father was dismissed from the case and left to find his way back on his own. The father may have reasonably determined that the best course was to allow the mother to reunify and then reconcile with her and the kids, especially since he himself was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Neither of these cases had to end this way. We can resolve messy paternity issues early with little effort — especially when the legal father is completely absent. We can make concerted efforts to build relationships between fathers and their children, even if they’re out-of-state or in prison. What we shouldn’t do is ignore half of a child’s family.
Here are some resources on doing that:
Engaging Fathers and Paternal Family Members (childwelfare.gov)
Barriers to Father Involvement in the Child Welfare System (fatherhood.gov)
Exploring the bias against fathers in the Child Welfare System (ucdavis.edu)