The following article was published in the Florida Times Union Jacksonville:
Supreme Court hears challenge to Florida adoption law
By BILL KACZOR Associated Press Writer
TALLAHASSSEE, Fla. - Unmarried men who fail to register with the state as potential fathers before a child is adopted should lose their parental rights, an adoption agency lawyer told the Florida Supreme Court on Monday.
Justice Harry Lee Anstead asked if that meant an unmarried man who has sex with a woman should skip "smoking the classic cigarette" and instead immediately tell the Health Department: "I want the state to know that I've just had sexual intercourse."
Jeanne Tate, the lawyer for Heart of Adoptions Inc., replied that a man would have nine months to sign up with the Florida Putative Father Registry, maintained by the state Department of Health.
An appeals court disagreed with the for-profit agency's contention that certain unmarried men should lose their rights, but asked the justices to decide the interpretation of state adoption laws as an issue of "great public importance." The high court will release an opinion later.
The Tampa case pits Heart of Adoptions and the adoptive parents of "Baby H" against the biological father, identified in court records as "J.A." to protect the child's identity.
J.A. gave up his parental rights when he failed to sign up with the Jacksonville-based registry before the baby was born and immediately adopted in August 2005, Tate said.
J.A.'s lawyer, Rhonda Portwood, argued her client did not find out about the pregnancy until three months before the baby was born and no one told him about the obsure registry. Only 47 men signed up in 2004 although nearly 90,000 children were born out of wedlock in Florida that year.
"Because you don't send a piece of paper to Jacksonville ... you're not going to have your parental rights?" Portwood said in an interview. "That's not fair."
The 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with her argument and reversed a trial judge's decision terminating J.A.'s parental rights and barring him from challenging the adoption of his child.
The court based its decision on two prior cases in which it held that failing to file with the registry was not a basis for terminating parental rights. Portwood also is challenging the registry law's constitutionality, arguing it deprives biological fathers of their due process rights.
Tate said the law fairly balances the rights of biological fathers against those of biological mothers and adoptive parents. The law was passed in 2003 in an effort to prevent the removal of children from their adoptive parents months or years after they were adopted.
"We've got to have bright line rules to determine when a child is free for adoption," Tate said after the argument. Otherwise, she said, children will be "faced with the prospect of being ripped out of the only home they've ever known."
That eventually could happen to Baby H. The child already is nearly 2 years old, but Tate said it may take several more years to resolve the case even though the Supreme Court has agreed to expedite its decision.
If the justices rule in J.A.'s favor, Tate said the adoption agency would continue to challenge his parental rights on other grounds, including abandonment, paternity and the best interests of the child.
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