“How many people have ever heard of the Putative Father Registry?” I ask this every semester when I teach my family law class at Syracuse University. No one ever raises a hand. Only blank stares.
“What about deadbeat dads? Ever heard of them?” Students nod, self-satisfied in their recognition. I move to my next question.
“This one is for the men. Have you ever revealed to the government the name of every woman you’ve ever had sex with?” This is met with complete silence, confused looks, nervous smiles. As one young woman muttered under her breath, this may sound like “some dystopian shit.”
But it’s not. Since the 1970s, 33 states have created Putative Father Registries, designed as a way to link unmarried men to the mother of their child. States expect men to report—voluntarily and honestly—information about all their sexual partners; otherwise, they forfeit their right to be contacted if a partner pursues adoption. The registry is not a petition for custody or a determination of paternity—only a right to notification. Without registry, the wishes of the biological father are irrelevant.
Consider the case of Chris Carlton, a veteran whose girlfriend, Shalonda Brown, put their baby up for adoption without his consent. The couple first met in Pennsylvania, and after Brown got pregnant, the two lost contact. Carlton worked as a military contractor, and his employer transferred him to Afghanistan. While abroad, Brown reached out to Carlton to inform him that she had a baby boy in Utah who died shortly after birth. Upon his return home, he discovered that the child was actually alive, female, and adopted.
This situation could have been prevented if Carlton had registered as a putative father in Utah. Registration would have linked his name to Brown’s, and he likely would have been notified of the adoption. Even if Brown willfully withheld Carlton’s name at delivery and adoption, the state would have known his identity.
State governments see this as the simple solution to the logistical problem of keeping track of unwed fathers. The Supreme Court agrees—in 1983, it ruled in Lehr v. Robertson that registering is as easy as “mailing a postcard.” Most states also have free registration, so cost shouldn’t prohibit any man from participating. So when a man fails to register and subsequently loses a child, courts uniformly respond, “Your loss.”
But this system has some big flaws. For one thing, it’s relatively unknown. In Florida, only 47 people registered in 2004, but there were 90,000 nonmarital babies born. And even for the few people who seem to be aware of their right to register, the process can be hard to navigate. Some states require men to indicate their partners’ height, weight, social security number, and more. You had a one-night stand? Don’t wait three days to call—better to register, and quick. New relationship? Verify her identity and get a social security number. Just moved in with your girlfriend? Bed, Bath, and Beyond isn’t the only place you should register. As Michael Higdon, a law professor at the University of Tennessee has argued, the burdens of registering are rooted in suspicion and mistrust. ‘Lest the mother get out of his sight,” he writes, “nonmarital fathers are being sent the message…to keep tabs on where she is at all times.”
State registry systems can also seem like bureaucratic afterthoughts. When I asked a staff member at the Alabama Department of Human Resources if all men should register, he said it was a good idea to “cover all your bases.” He wasn’t entirely sure of the intricacies of the law, but he promised to send me some forms in the mail, since men can’t register online in Alabama.