16&P: Adoption, paternal birth rights, and family support

This week’s episode of 16 and Pregnant was intense and emotional — Lori, who was put up for adoption as a child, struggles with keeping her baby, which she can only do with the support of the baby’s father, or putting him up for adoption, which means she has to give away the only biological family she has.

The episode had a lot of important themes — adopted children giving their babies up for adoption, a father’s rights when it comes to custody and adoption, and the emotional toll of adoption when you want to keep the baby but your family won’t allow it. In fact, 75 percent of the episode focused on the trials and tribulations before baby Aidan was even born — from her ex-boyfriend Cory going back and forth about taking custody to her mother refusing to have a baby shower because a teen pregnancy is not something she wants to celebrate.

1. Adopted children giving their babies up for adoption. I thought this was a really heart-wrenching thing to watch because Lori was being forced to give up the only biological family she ever had. I don’t know what it’s like to be adopted, but it seemed like Valerie — who was also adopted — from the third episode of this season had the same thought process and was eager to have Nevaeh as the first biological family she knew.

I think that beyond the extreme difficulty of giving your only flesh and blood to someone else — although I’m sure the open adoption aspect made her more comfortable with the idea — the experience may have helped her come to terms with whatever emotions she might have felt toward her own birth mother. At the end of the episode, she said she understood better why her birth mother might have given her up for adoption, as she herself knew she couldn’t provide for her son under the circumstances.

I do wonder, however, if her own adoptive parents were more enthusiastic about adoption because they couldn’t support her and a baby, or because they knew the joys of being adoptive parents. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but their house looked pretty large from afar, she was an only child, and she went to private Catholic school (read: they looked like they had money). It would be kind of a selfish/selfless move if they were motivated by their own experiences, as it takes the baby away from Lori (who really wanted to raise him), but on the other hand it gives Aidan to a loving family who might not otherwise be able to have children.

2. What are a birth father’s rights? This episode really made me curious about the rights of birth fathers, because Cory was eager to take care of the baby and seemed to fight a lot with Lori about it. I wondered if he only wanted to keep Aidan under the condition that Lori live with him and help him take care of Aidan, or whether Lori’s family didn’t want him to take care of Aidan by himself and preferred adoption to that scenario.

Cory went back and forth on the subject, first wanting to raise Aidan and then coming up with excuses why adoption was the better bet, so overall he was a sketchy character. After some research, it seems that birth fathers do have parental rights, but they carry some stipulations when it comes to adoption.

First and foremost, a man has to know he has fathered a child in order to contest an adoption. Adoption agencies won’t run into trouble if they get the legal consent of both parents when going through an adoption and both parents sign over their parental rights. If they don’t bother to find or include the father — or if the birthmother doesn’t want to name names — then there is a high risk that the birthfather could claim his parental rights and get custody of the child even if s/he is already placed in an adoptive home.

Half of the states have putative father registries (either proposed or in effect), where men can fill out registration forms and be entered into a database if they suspect they will or have fathered a child. Adoption agencies should check these registries before going through an adoption where they only have the mother’s consent, because locating the father and either having him sign over his parental rights or take custody will avoid a lot of emotional turmoil for the baby and adoptive parents, and it will avoid time in court. Click here for adoption facts for birth fathers.

Simply providing the sperm doesn’t guarantee a man paternal rights though, as there are several legal caveats when it comes to paternity. Take Ohio for example. A judge could decide that a woman can give her baby up for adoption without consent from the birth father if:

+ the baby was conceived out of rape (and the man was charged and convicted, which is a whole different, problematic topic);

+ if the father waits more than a month to register as the baby’s father;

+ if the judge deems that the father willfully abandoned the baby or didn’t support the baby;

+ if the father ditched the birth mother during her entire pregnancy and didn’t show up until after the baby was born; or

+ if the court thinks the father is “unreasonably” holding up the adoption process, e.g. stalling to sign and return papers, not showing up to hearings.

Every court case is subject to the decision of the judge and individual circumstances, and different states have different laws. There have been court cases that reward custody of an adopted child to the birth father after the child has already been living with the adopted family, because either the birth father didn’t consent to the adoption or didn’t know about the baby until late or after the pregnancy.

3. Who decides — the parents or the birth mother? When it comes to teen pregnancy, it’s tough to know who decides the fate of the baby. So far on 16 and Pregnant, the mothers have pretty much chosen their own paths without much resistance from their families. Sure, Farrah and Jenelle got flack from their parents for being absent and irresponsible parents, but neither set of parents threw their kid out on the street or refused to support the baby.

Oddly enough, the two cases with the most conflict where Catelynn and Lori’s stories, both of which revolved around adoption. Although in Catelynn’s case, her and Tyler both agreed on adoption and it was their parents who staunchly disagreed and wanted them to raise the baby themselves. I think Lori’s case is more emotionally scarring because Lori didn’t get her way — she felt like her opinion didn’t matter, and her desire to parent the baby was squashed by her parents’ desire for the baby to be put up for adoption.

I’m curious how this dynamic will affect Lori, Aidan, and Aidan’s adoptive parents — I can see Lori wanting to be very involved in Aidan’s life because, after all, adoption wasn’t her idea, nor did she fully decide for herself that adoption was the best choice. She accepted the open adoption, but I’m not sure how she will embrace it.

This episode was extremely dramatic and tough to watch without feeling for Lori and the difficult predicament she was in. It seems like a lack of information about antibiotics and how they inhibit birth control’s effective lead to an emotionally scarring life decision about whether to keep or give up the only blood-related family she’s ever known. It refreshingly wasn’t loaded with teen angst, but instead shared a lot of lessons about the complexity of adoption, parental custody, and familial support systems’ importance in being a teenage mom.

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