Christopher Emanuel / The Atlantic

A Father’s Struggle to Stop His Daughter’s Adoption

In the United States, when an unmarried man has a baby, his partner can give it up without his consent—unless he happens to know about an obscure system called the responsible father registry.

Christopher Emanuel first met his girlfriend in the fall of 2012, when they were both driving forklifts at a warehouse in Trenton, South Carolina. She was one of a handful of women on the job; she was white and he was black. She ignored him at first, and Emanuel saw it as a challenge. It took multiple attempts to get her phone number. He says he “wasn’t lonely, but everybody wants somebody. Nothing wrong with being friends.”

Emanuel, who is now 25, describes himself as a non-discriminatory flirt. He was popular in high school and a state track champion. According to the Aiken High School 2008 yearbook, he was voted “Most Attractive” and “Best Dressed.” Even his former English teacher Francesca Pataro describes him as a “ray of sunshine.” Emanuel says he’s “talked”—euphemistically speaking—with a lot of women: “Black, Puerto Rican, Egyptian, and Vietnamese.” But before he met this girlfriend, he says, he had never seriously dated a white girl.

Emanuel’s girlfriend didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, so some details of their relationship remain difficult to confirm. But her affidavits and her text-message exchanges with Emanuel align with the key elements of his story: Their relationship began in February 2013, after months of friendship. When her parents were away for the summer, his girlfriend invited Emanuel to stay at her house for a while. And in May, she took a home pregnancy test, which came out positive.

Emanuel says they were happy as they made a doctor’s appointment and began to plan a life together. But his girlfriend’s parents were still out of town, and she had yet to tell them about the pregnancy or the young man sleeping at their house. Still, he says, they settled into a routine, sharing the cost of doctor’s appointments and attending them together. The baby was due in mid-February of 2014, and when a sonogram revealed that it was going to be a girl, they decided to name her Skylar. Over the summer, Emanuel says he helped his girlfriend apply for Medicaid and for time off under the Family Leave and Medical Act. He still had not met any of her family.

One evening in August, Emanuel says his girlfriend called him, sobbing. Her mother had returned from vacation and a neighbor had told her about the pregnancy. She had confronted her daughter and, according to Emanuel, told her, “You’re pregnant by a nigger. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Emanuel’s girlfriend repeatedly promised him that she would never put their child up for adoption. But he couldn’t erase the possibility from his mind. So he posed the question to her, “If you ever had to give your baby up for adoption, you’re going to give it to me, right?” She said she would, but insisted that she had no plans to give the baby away. He says they made plans for her to move in with him permanently at the end of the year.

It was around this time that Emanuel’s half-sister, Chelsea McKnabb, and her best friend, Jill Thomason, started having misgivings. When they met her for the first time at Boo-Yah, the bar and grill Emanuel’s mother owned north of town, Thomason found Emanuel’s girlfriend “distant” and felt that “something was off.” “I think she’s going to give the baby away,” she told McKnabb.

After the encounter, Thomason started researching paternity rights on her own. That’s when she learned about the South Carolina Responsible Father Registry, which, according to the state’s Department of Social Services, “gives a man who has fathered a child with a woman he is not married to the right to be notified when an adoption or a termination of parental rights action occurs.” Without the registry, his girlfriend could put the baby up for adoption without telling Emanuel about it. Registering with the state wouldn’t guarantee him custody of Skylar, but at least he’d be notified and have a say in court.

But Emanuel insisted that he didn’t need to register. Even though his girlfriend feared being cut off by her parents, he couldn’t imagine that they would actually make their daughter choose between staying in the family and giving her child up for adoption. The act of registering felt disloyal to him. He didn’t anticipate a battle, and he didn’t want to feel as though he were sharpening his sword.

Skylar on a shopping trip (Chris Emanuel)

Until 1972, single men like Emanuel had no rights to children they’d fathered outside of marriage. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Stanley v. Illinois changed that. The case centered on Peter Stanley and his partner, Joan, who had lived intermittently with Peter for 18 years. Stanley had fathered three children with Joan during that time. Upon her death, the state took their three children and gave them to court-appointed guardians. In Illinois, as in other states, the father’s non-marital status was taken as a sign that he was uninterested in his children and lacked the capacity to care for them on his own. Because the law categorically denied due process to unmarried fathers, the Court ruled it unconstitutional.

In 1983, another Supreme Court case, Lehr v. Robertson, determined that it’s not biology alone that entitles fathers to rights. In that case, a biological father tried unsuccessfully to block his daughter’s adoption by her stepfather. The Court ruled against the biological father because he had not actively established himself in her life and that his reliance on the biological connection alone was insufficient reason to disrupt the adoption. This “biology plus” doctrine established an ethic of responsibility: Fathers have rights, but only if they are earned.

Lehr’s most persistent legacy is that it established the importance of the putative-father registry. A dissenting opinion, written by Justice Byron White and joined by Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun, pointed out that Lehr and his girlfriend had lived together before and during the pregnancy, and she’d “concealed her whereabouts” from him for two years after the baby’s birth. By the time Lehr had located her and the baby, she was married to another man. She’d refused to let him visit, turned away his child support, and threatened to have him arrested. Lehr had filed a paternity suit to establish his rights, but he hadn’t added his name to New York’s putative-father registry.

In the end, this omission was all that mattered. The majority pointed out that the registry had been designed specifically for cases like Lehr’s: to allow biological fathers to “demonstrate [their] intent to claim paternity of a child born out of wedlock,” entitling them “to receive notice of any proceeding to adopt that child.” The Court noted that he could have registered “simply by mailing a postcard.”

Today, 33 states have putative-father registries. Some require mail-in forms. Others, including South Carolina, allow men to register online. They simply need to create an account and enter some basic information about themselves and their partners, listing the child’s place of conception, its race, and its approximate date of birth. There is no national registry, which means a man must register separately in each state where the mother might possibly give birth. (No state requires a pregnant, unmarried woman to divulge the name of the father, and she can give a false name if she chooses.)

Despite the Supreme Court’s endorsement, critics often argue that the registries do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. “It sounds like a good thing,” said Erik Smith, an Ohio family law attorney who tries to educate men about the issue, “but it’s the only way that an unwed father can secure his right to notice.” Shannon Jones, a prominent lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, has called for the abolition of the registries. She describes them as a “‘check box’ so the adoption can go ahead and get the pesky father out of the way.”

In fact, the registries were designed primarily to protect adoptive couples and the children they bring home. Adoptive couples are in an increasingly vulnerable position. Waitlists for domestic adoptions are getting longer and longer. The combined costs can easily exceed $30,000, and the process is emotionally fraught. Couples often turn to adoption after years of infertility treatments, and in the case of domestic adoptions, the birth parents are usually never entirely out of the picture. According to a 2013 report, 95 percent of all domestic adoptions are open to some degree, whether that means allowing the birth parents to access information through the agency or requiring the adoptive parents to send regular photos and updates until the child turns 18.

When the birth father isn’t involved in the initial arrangements, as is often the case, there’s always the possibility that he might try to gain custody after the adoption is complete. In many cases, the adoptive parents might fear that he’ll genuinely want to raise the child as his own. In others, they may worry that he’ll leverage his position to get money or other benefits from the new couple. Either of these scenarios could prove disastrous.

The 2010 act that established South Carolina’s Responsible Father Registry begins with a simple declaration: “The State has a compelling interest in promptly providing stable and permanent homes for adoptive children and in preventing the disruption of adoptive placements.” James Fletcher Thompson, the adoption lawyer who wrote the legislation for South Carolina’s registry, noted that it was designed “in the interest of adoptive parents” and adopted children.

From a birth father’s perspective, however, there’s a significant problem: Hardly anyone knows that these registries exist. They aren’t advertised on billboards, park benches, subway cars, or in the men’s bathrooms at bars and restaurants. When asked about their advertising efforts, most state offices of vital records point to their websites or to pamphlets made available in their offices. Most departments say they don’t have funding for community outreach. Virginia is an outlier: The state has advertised its registry through a Facebook campaign and a partnership with the Norfolk Tides, a minor league baseball team.

But the vast majority of states don’t do anything except wait for registrants who rarely show. According to the most recent census, 43.9 percent of all children in South Carolina are born outside of marriage each year. In 2014, around 30,000 children were born to unmarried women. Emanuel was one of 279 men who added his name to the state’s putative father registry that year.

Figures from 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, show similar trends in other states with putative father registries. In Ohio, where 56,278 babies were born to unmarried women, only 164 men registered. In Florida, only 544 men registered while 82,746 unmarried women gave birth. In Virginia, where 35,491 babies were born outside of marriage, 111 men registered. Can a state say that the registry is a success when the response rate is in the double digits for every 10,000 men? The system brings to mind Justice Antonin Scalia’s description of the way Nero promulgated laws in the Roman Empire: post them high on pillars so they could not be read, and punish offenders when they inevitably transgress them.

In September, Emanuel’s girlfriend told him that her mother wanted to meet him. This seemed like progress to him. It had been a month since her mother had learned about the pregnancy, and Emanuel thought he would finally have a chance to win his girlfriend’s parents over and articulate his intentions toward his girlfriend and the baby. But she kept pushing the introduction back, telling him her parents were “out of town” or “busy,” Emanuel said.

Three weeks passed before they set an actual date. When Emanuel and his mother, Natasha Emanuel, came in the door, his girlfriend’s father wasn’t there. But Emanuel embraced the mother and she didn’t recoil. They all sat down and he explained his plan for supporting his girlfriend and Skylar. Then, as Natasha recalled, the mother interrupted Emanuel: “You may be a nice fella, but [my daughter] knows it’s forbidden to date a nigger.”

Emanuel and Skylar (Chris Emanuel)

Emanuel says he and Natasha exchanged stunned glances. “How do you think society is going to look at you?” his girlfriend’s mother continued. She told them the shock was going to make her husband start drinking again.

When the phone rang at one point, Natasha says his girlfriend’s mother held her finger up and shushed everyone while she talked to her husband on the phone. It was clear that he knew about the meeting taking place in his home: At one point, his wife said, “Yes, yes. I’m handling that. I’m taking care of that now.” She hung up and immediately told the couple that their only option was adoption. His girlfriend then told her mother she’d give Skylar to him if it went that far, Emanuel said.

Emanuel left the meeting feeling reassured that his girlfriend had stood up for him. They were in love, he thought, and would carry on with their plans of moving in together and waiting for their daughter. And as Emanuel drove away with his mother, he got what appeared to be a reassuring text from his girlfriend.

He read the message out loud and exchanged yet another bewildered look with Natasha. “My mom likes you,” it said.

After that encounter, Emanuel and his girlfriend continued to see each other daily. Emanuel says she spent half-nights at his house, returning home only when she knew her parents were asleep. By this time, his girlfriend was six months pregnant. Then, in the beginning of November, Emanuel says she told him her father had stopped speaking to her. Her visits began to drop off, but Emanuel continued to clear space for her to move in, and text-message records show that they communicated every day. The texts usually ended with a “mwah” or “luv ya.” After his girlfriend’s doctor diagnosed her with gestational diabetes, Emanuel texted her three times a day to check her blood sugar levels.

The visits dropped off even more in December; his girlfriend told him it was because of her constant diabetic fatigue. There were no more sleepovers or social calls, but he says he accompanied her to a doctor’s appointment on December 26. That was the last time he saw her pregnant.

In January, Emanuel said, his girlfriend told him he didn’t have to come with her to doctor’s appointments anymore—her mother would go with her instead. They still texted daily, and she assured Emanuel that he could be in the delivery room with her.

At the same time, Emanuel’s half-sister and her friend continued to badger him about joining the South Carolina Responsible Father Registry. Their persistence aggravated him, but he soon changed his mind.

On February 1, Emanuel’s family, friends, and neighbors arrived at Boo-Yah for a “diaper bash,” the Southern male version of a baby shower. His girlfriend’s friends and family hadn’t wanted to host a baby shower or party for her, but she told Emanuel she’d attend the bash his mother was throwing for them. The guests brought armloads of gifts: clothes, bottles, wipes, toys, and other typical cute, bouncy things for babies. There was food, music, and joy. His girlfriend never showed up.

Around the same time, Emanuel learned that his girlfriend had lied about the date of her most recent doctor’s appointment. He began to wonder: If she was trying to keep him from finding out about a doctor’s appointment, how could he be sure she would let him attend the birth?

He finally signed up for the Responsible Father Registry on February 4, the Tuesday after the diaper bash. But he kept making efforts to see his girlfriend. He tried to drop off all the gifts from the party, along with a breast pump he’d bought at Walmart, but each time he texted or called, his girlfriend told him she was busy and would pick them up herself later.

Chris Emanuel

The next Monday, February 10, a devastating ice storm hit South Carolina, and 364,000 homes lost power. The storm caused an estimated $54 million in infrastructure damage and $360 million in damage from fallen trees. The hardest-hit areas were around Charleston and Aiken.

In spite of the brutal weather, Emanuel decided to go out and finally deliver the gifts. With the due date only five days away, he says he had a growing feeling that “there could be something going on.” But his girlfriend wasn’t home, so he parked at the end of the road and waited for her. Three hours passed and she still didn’t return.

Later that day, his girlfriend texted him, “you know I love you, right?” He thought it was “random” that she was putting so much emphasis on love at that particular moment. Emanuel called her several times, but she picked up just once, and only briefly. She told him she’d been in and out of the bathroom because she was constipated.

He returned home with all the gifts and started making phone calls. He suspected his girlfriend might be in labor, so he called the doctor and hospital multiple times. “[If] you go into delivery or in labor, please do not forbid me from seeing my child,” he texted her. When he finally got through at Aiken Hospital, they told him she wasn’t there.

After the ice storm, Emanuel continued to communicate with his girlfriend, mostly through text messages. Their conversations, according to the records, were relatively banal at first:

Emanuel: “Wyd?”

Girlfriend: “Watching TV”

Emanuel: “K ima call u shortly”

She texted him that she would be induced on the 24th if she hadn’t gone into labor by then. At 9:00 a.m. on February 19, she texted a photo of herself, smiling and hugely pregnant with one knee resting on a settee at the foot of her parents’ four-poster bed. She told him the picture had been taken “the other day.” He responded that it brought tears to his eyes to see her so far along. “The love I have for u n sky no man can take away, always and forever!” he wrote to her.

Their conversation continued:

Emanuel: “I’m the father I will not be a dead beat dad or let someone hold me back from my child OHHH hell naw. I mean I can only tolerate but so much.”

Girlfriend: No one ever said you couldn’t see her!

Emanuel: Baby, I can’t even see u! Lol. Hell shit might already be born on da down low lol idk.

Girlfriend: wow

They exchanged no further communications that day. Two days later, on the 21st, his girlfriend told Emanuel she was going to talk to her doctor about induction. She signed her message, “mwuah.”

The next day, on Saturday, February 22, a private investigator showed up at Emanuel’s home and served him with notice papers. “An adoption proceeding was filed in Greenville County on February 19, 2014, and you are the putative father of a Caucasian/African-American female child born at Aiken Hospital on February 11, 2014,” the papers stated. His daughter had been born the day after the ice storm. The notice did not give any specifics about the adoption—he didn’t know who had his daughter, or where they were. Just the day before, his girlfriend had texted, “The baby is still in my belly.”

Emanuel said he “flipped.” He sent her a text message:


Girlfriend: I can’t take back what I’ve done. I’m sorry.

Emanuel: Didn’t you say I was gone be there?

Girlfriend: Yes. I’m sorry!

Emanuel: So why in the hell did you mislead me and say Sky was in your stomach after she was born??!!!!

Girlfriend: I really don’t know. I feel like shit. I know I’m a horrible person but I’m sorry.

Emanuel: I don’t think you wanted to honestly. I feel you were forced to do something you didn’t want to! You had no choice but to accommodate your family decisions!!

Girlfriend: It was just so much shit but no I didn’t want to at all.

On Monday, February 24—the next business day—Emanuel drove two hours to file his objection to the adoption. Normally, the objection would have been filed in Aiken County, where Skylar was born. But the couple who wanted to adopt Skylar had chosen an attorney, Raymond Godwin, who had his office in Greenville.

Emanuel registered his handwritten pro se objection at the Greenville County Court at 1:09 p.m. His statement was brief and direct: “I am contesting the adoption proceedings … my girlfriend said she had not dilated and would be induced … we talked on a daily basis … she advised me the baby was in her stomach … a private investigator served a summons paper … I was unaware of the proceedings.” Afterwards, he drove to Godwin’s office to hand deliver a certified copy of his objection. He took a picture of the agency sign to prove that he had been there.

Emanuel’s half-sister Chelsea (right) and her friend Jill play with Skylar. Their research and insistence was what propelled Emanuel to add his name to the responsible father registry. (Chris Emanuel)

Godwin declined to comment on any of the specifics of Emanuel’s case, citing attorney-client privilege. But the records he filed with the court include a printout of Emanuel’s registry dated February 13, indicating that he was aware by that point that an interested father could interfere with the adoption. On February 19, the adoptive couple filed legal documents without naming Emanuel as a party.

On February 20, Godwin signed Emanuel’s notice of adoption proceedings, informing him that he had 30 days to register his objection at the Greenville County Court. That same day, the adoptive couple’s request for an out-of-state adoption was approved by South Carolina officials, meaning they could take Skylar home.

Godwin’s law office sits in a brick ranch house on Wade Hampton Boulevard. It feels more like a family home than a business, which suits the nature of Godwin’s practice. On his website, he estimates that he has facilitated over 1,500 “miracles of adoption.” (In a recent email, he said that number has now exceeded 2,000.) The office sits at the edge of Bob Jones University, the private Christian college where Godwin received his diploma in 1979.

Godwin and his wife, Laura Beauvais-Godwin, are themselves the parents of two adopted daughters, and they have been deeply involved in the adoption world for decades. Bouvais-Godwin heads the South Carolina branch of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a pro-life nonprofit that counsels expectant mothers to choose adoption over abortion. The group’s mission statement includes “recognizing and advocating the personhood of pre-born children.” Her workspace is located in the same brick house as her husband’s.

The Godwins share bylines as well as office space. In their coauthored how-to guide, The Complete Adoption Book, they offer detailed advice on how to deal with birth fathers. One chapter begins with a story of a birth father who threw “a wrench in the works” by demanding his baby back after its new parents had already taken it home. The story ended unhappily for everyone: The adoptive couple lost the baby, the birth father proved unfit to raise it, and the birth mother ended up foregoing college in order to devote herself to raising a child she hadn’t wanted in the first place.

Throughout the chapter, the Godwins generally advise adoptive couples to keep the birth father informed. “Once he learns of an adoption plan, he may be relieved, or he may express renewed determination to be a father. In either way, everyone knows prior to birth,” they write. “The adoptive couple can move on, and the birth mother can adjust her expectations as to her future.”

In cases where the man has made it clear that he has no interest in raising his child, they give somewhat different advice: “It may be wiser to contact him after birth and placement; this tactic presents the adoption as a ‘done deal,’ thus making sure that he does not feel he has found new leverage—not to parent his child (his actions show otherwise) but to either get back at the birth mother or to get her back to resume the prior relationship!” But the Godwins emphasize that this approach will only work “if the birth mother’s honesty can be relied on” and the birth father truly has expressed a lack of interest.

The Godwins have been pitted against birth fathers in a number of legal battles, most famously in the complicated case of Baby Veronica. The birth mother engaged Nightlight’s help while Godwin represented the adoptive couple. Veronica’s birth father, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, insisted that he had not been properly informed about his parental rights, and he tried to invoke the Indian Child Welfare Act to recover his daughter. (The adoptive parents won the case when it reached the Supreme Court.) Godwin’s firm also represented the adoptive parents in the case of Baby Deseray, another Native American infant who was adopted by a white family despite objections from the birth father. In that case, the birth mother had stopped communicating with him during her seventh month of pregnancy, and his search for her was unsuccessful until two days after the baby was born. The father eventually regained custody of the child.

Emanuel’s house in Aiken, South Carolina. Through his text-message records, Emanuel was able to show that his girlfriend had spent several nights there, a claim she’d denied. (Chris Emanuel)

In September 2013, when both cases were in the news, the Charleston Post and Courier quoted Godwin’s explanation for why these babies had been adopted without permission from their biological fathers: “Just because the birth father is a sperm donor and has that biological link does not under the law establish his parental rights.”

In an email, Godwin noted that this quote had been a paraphrase of the Supreme Court decision. As he put it, a father’s rights “can start to evaporate before birth in South Carolina if he does not take certain actions such as support the birth mom or live with her for six months prior to birth or hold himself out as the birth father. In those cases, a judge can hold that he has abandoned his parental rights during the limited window of time he has to assert those rights.”

The adoptive couple declined to be interviewed for this story. Based on legal records, they are in their 30s. He is a tall, sandy-haired businessman; she is a petite, dark-haired homemaker. They are solidly religious and middle class, with a household income slightly above the median. But they had one thing in common with Emanuel and his girlfriend: They were interracial.

Later, the couple would write to Emanuel, telling him their story: Both came from large families and belonged to a tight-knit church community where virtually everyone else had children. But their own attempts had failed. Conceiving naturally had not worked. Neither had fertility drugs. Numerous IVF treatments had proven costly and unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the wife was approaching the reproductive doomsday age of 40.

So they’d turned to adoption. Through a private church-based adoption agency, they’d created an online profile telling their story, complete with joyful pictures, tales about their marriage, and information about where they lived (in a new townhouse). Birth mothers were able to find them by searching for “education of adoptive couple” or “racial background of adoptive couple.” Other search terms were “mother’s employment after placement” and “willing to adopt a child with an unknown father.”

Four different birth mothers had chosen this particular couple, then changed their minds and kept their babies. The couple later wrote to Emanuel that they’d understood and respected each mother’s ultimate choice: Their faith called for compassion and understanding, but each time, the disappointment was excruciating.

They had almost given up when Emanuel’s girlfriend wrote them an email. She told them that she liked that they were interracial. She liked that they lived by the beach. She liked that they were a traditional married couple with a wife at home. She also liked that they lived far away from South Carolina.

That email launched a series of busy exchanges between the adoptive couple and their agency, beginning in late August. On September 5, the communication records show there were 20 calls, emails, and letters between 7:32 a.m. and 1:32 p.m. One week later, on September 11, the couple had a joint adoptive interview.

Emanuel and Skylar at Boo-Yah, the pool hall owned by his mother. (Chris Emanuel)

That meeting had already taken place by the time  Emanuel first met his girlfriend’s mother.

According to an affidavit, Emanuel’s girlfriend told the couple that she was unable to parent the child herself but that she wanted to maintain post-adoption contact—an open arrangement that would permit communication if everyone agreed. She didn’t name a birth father; she told the adoptive couple that he wasn’t around and hadn’t supported her financially or emotionally during the pregnancy. She said that she’d known him briefly from her job and that he was black. She described his family as athletic and outgoing.

The couple proceeded cautiously, even though the birth mother appeared enthusiastic and the birth father seemed uninvolved. The birth mother told them her due date was February 15, and the adoptive couple made plans to be there.

The arrangement still faced a major legal hurdle: The adoptive couple was from another state, and South Carolina does not permit out-of state adoptions. The prohibition originated from South Carolina’s troubled history with adoption. In the 1980s and 1990s, South Carolina gained a reputation as an “adoption mecca” for wealthy out-of-state couples seeking children. The lack of protective laws drew prospective parents who sought quick, easy, and uncontested adoptions. An infamous March 1984 Time magazine article featured a “loving, financially secure college-educated couple” that placed a personals ad in a local paper for a “white newborn,” promising vacations and expenses paid for an expectant mother who wanted to “LIVE LIKE A QUEEN.”

The same month that the Time article was published, The New York Times found that doctors and lawyers privately arranged many adoptions, with little oversight from state agencies. Judges often approved adoptions with few questions under the assumption that children fared better in adoptive homes. At the time, no state law prohibited the open sale of children.

There was one loophole in South Carolina’s out-of-state adoption law: Couples from other states could adopt in cases of “unusual or exceptional circumstances.” This made allowances for hard-to-place children, including those who were older, disabled, members of a sibling group, or “of mixed racial heritage.”

Godwin and his clients entered their order for exceptional or unusual circumstances on January 21, 2014. This set in place the interstate mechanisms that would allow the adoptive couple to take custody of the newborn. On February 4, Emanuel’s former girlfriend signed a sworn statement asserting that she was unable to provide for the child. “I do not wish to name the Birth Father,” she wrote. “He has not supported me emotionally or financially throughout this entire pregnancy.” A Greenville county court signed the order on February 7, finding his the stated circumstances “unusual” and “exceptional.”

The court records show that Emanuel’s former girlfriend communicated with the adoptive couple every week. They traveled to South Carolina to meet her and her parents right before her due date. Everyone in her family, including her father, was pleased with the placement. The doctor decided to induce her that same day. The next morning, the baby was born and the couple took custody.

It was only after they were back home with the baby that Emanuel received his notice of the adoption on February 22. According to the putative-father registry statute, the attorney representing adoptive parents must serve the putative father within 10 days of “receipt of the registrant’s name.” Emanuel was served on the ninth day. (According to court records, Godwin received notice of Emanuel’s registration on February 13.)

By 4:50 p.m. that same day, the adoptive couple had changed their adoption papers to say that Emanuel had “registered,” but they did not name him as a party because they had no proof that he was the actual biological father.

On March 20—almost four weeks after the investigator served Emanuel with notice papers—Godwin informed the Aiken-based judge in a letter that upon his “return from vacation,” he would draw papers to verify whether Emanuel “was indeed the birth father.”

On the evening of April 3, Emanuel sat on his back porch, waiting for a message from his attorneys. Shortly after filing his complaint at the courthouse, he’d visited Jennifer Mook’s solo law family law practice in Aiken. She now says it was “one of those cases you have to take.” For help with the Greenville court, Mook had teamed up with Kimaka Nichols-Graham, the managing attorney at South Carolina Legal Services in Greenville. Now all three of them were waiting for news.

Emanuel still remembers the moment just before the text message came in. He was sitting outside, breathing in the still, calm South Carolina spring. He remembers looking up and seeing a lone owl perched on a great oak bough above him. Owls were rare in those parts, so he took it as a sign. That’s when his phone buzzed. “Paternity test is back,” Mook texted. “You are Skylar’s father.”

Things moved quickly after that. On April 7, Emanuel and his attorneys showed up for an emergency hearing at the Aiken County Courthouse. The adoptive couple participated via speakerphone. His ex-girlfriend was present in the building, but she chose to stay outside of the courtroom. Instead of speaking in person, she presented her case through an affidavit, signed by Raymond Godwin.

To a large extent, the judge had to weigh his ex-girlfriend’s word against Emanuel’s. She swore that he had never contributed to her medical bills. Emanuel swore that he had given her money toward two doctor’s visits and then helped her get onto Medicaid. She insisted that he was financially unable to provide for the baby. He provided a sworn financial declaration, along with testimonies from relatives who promised to serve as a support network for the little girl.

But Emanuel had one piece of solid evidence: his text message records. Through these exchanges, he was able to prove that he’d been deeply invested in the pregnancy and enthusiastic about raising his child. He could show that he’d checked in on his then-girlfriend multiple times a day to make sure she was checking her blood sugar levels. And he could demonstrate the extent of her deception.

Ten days later, on April 17, the judge handed down her ruling. Emanuel would gain custody of the baby.

Emanuel with his lawyers after being named Skylar’s sole parent (Chris Emanuel)

On April 27, Emanuel’s ex-girlfriend sent a letter to the judge, expressing her disappointment about the decision and reiterating the claims she’d made in her April 7 affidavit. In conclusion, she wrote, “I would never have entered into adoption if I thought Chris would ever have any rights. I would never want the adoptive parents to experience such pain. I would never want to rip a child from the only mother and father she has ever known. I would never want my baby to experience such a trauma. Chris’s home is the least stable place for her … It will take a lifetime to deal with the pain and sorrow of the devastating outcome.”

Shortly after the judge’s decision came down, Emanuel received his first email from the adoptive couple (paraphrased here to preserve privacy). The adoptive parents told him that birth fathers had not been involved in their previous adoption attempts; it had always been the mother, not the father, who had wanted the baby back.

They went on to describe their new daughter’s daily routine and how they’d comforted her through bouts of colic and acid reflux. Emanuel learned that she was a happy and smart baby who recognized their faces. They let him know that they truly loved her, and that she was in a comfortable home with her mother and father. They wanted him to know that she’d made them the happiest they had ever been in their lives.

They told him it was anguishing to realize that yet another adoption had fallen through— even harder this time because the baby had become such a joyous part of their lives. They thought of the empty nursery, the unused strollers, and the abandoned swing that would still be in their home once she left. But they concluded that their abject sorrow could not keep them from denying a father his right. Expressing sincere remorse for the conflict, they told him would bring the baby back to Aiken on May 3, just as the court had ordered.

But a few days before the couple returned to Aiken, they wrote to him again. This time, it was an emotional plea, calling on Emanuel to do the “right thing.”

The adoptive couple told Emanuel that had a lot of power in the situation, even comparing him to God, and said they hoped that Emanuel’s love for the baby would inspire him to change his mind. They questioned whether he had “fully grasped the responsibility of fatherhood.” Then, calling the baby Skylar—the name her birth parents had chosen, rather than the new name they’d given her—they assured Emanuel she would be raised in a religious home with graduate-degree-holding parents. She would receive the best education. Most of all, she would have a mother. By letting Skylar stay with the only parents she had ever known, they told him, he could pursue his own dreams with the knowledge that he had chosen to give his daughter a better life.

Emanuel knew the adoptive couple meant it with open hearts and no judgments. Those arguments were all they had. But he never responded to the adoptive couple’s email. Skylar would be home in three days, and that was all he wanted.

Marcia Yablon-Zug, who teaches family law at the University of South Carolina, said a woman in the position of Emanuel’s ex-girlfriend faces very real pressures and often has a “perverse incentive” to pursue adoption. Relinquishing custody to the father could make her liable for paying child support—or worse, being condemned as a “bad mom,” Yablon-Zug said. In contrast, adoption is seen as a “noble sacrifice.”

According to Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, an activist for birth-mother rights, a vulnerable woman often gives her child away after being told that “the only way she can be free and clear is adoption.” On her website, Musings of the Lame, she offers advice for birth parents who feel they have been wronged by the adoption process. “Girls are desperate to hold on to anything that will fix the problem,” she said in an interview, “and adoption becomes the lifeline that will fix everything.”

Chris Emanuel

In a case like Emanuel’s, a birth mother has the added incentive to distance herself from a biracial child. In South Carolina, anti-miscegenation laws stayed on the books until 1999—more than 30 years after the Supreme Court made them legally unenforceable in Loving v. Virginia. Aiken has its share of interracial couples today, including Emanuel’s father and stepmother, but many locals continue to scorn biracial families. His girlfriend’s parents happened to be among them.

Whatever the particular pressures, there’s no question that an unmarried pregnant woman faces a different set of concerns than her male partner does. She’s the one who must carry the baby for nine months and suffer through the labor and delivery. And far more often than not, she knows she will be the one left caring for it if the couple breaks up. Many women have to contend with men who are abusive or otherwise unfit to care for a small child. Other women know they’ll have to rely on support payments that may not come through.

The American legal system is set up with these scenarios in mind. As a result, states view unmarried fathers as sources of financial support rather than caregivers. States expect men to be persistent, aggressive, and proactive in offering money even when the mother rejects it or refuses contact. Take the case of Abernathy v. Baby Boy, decided by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1993. An unmarried woman put her baby up for adoption after rejecting the father’s marriage proposal and “kind of hiding away from him,” according to court documents. The father was able to gain custody of the child, but only because he could prove that he’d offered to support the woman and pay for her education during and after the pregnancy, even turning over his bank account and car to her while he was on active duty with the Navy.

“Even though we’ve had progress in the active role that men take in their children’s lives, the state still defines breadwinning as the definitive component of fatherhood,” said Deborah Dinner, an associate professor of family law at Washington University. Staying in good standing can mean as little as an automated direct deposit, but anything less than an actual offer of money is considered by law to be “vague and conditional.” Even if the woman disappears or issues a restraining order, the man’s potential support must be tangible and ready, like escrow. Registering as a responsible father gave Emanuel the right to be notified of the adoption, but in order to actually gain custody of Skylar, he had to persuade the judge that he could provide for her.

Emanuel says his first months with Skylar were as challenging as anyone would expect: sleep deprivation, teething, and other new-parent adjustments. It was mostly typical parent stuff, and he thought of himself as both mom and dad. His income was modest—he was working as a customer-service representative through a temp agency—but he was earning enough to support his daughter, a happy child with cherubic cheeks and bows in her curly black hair.

In January 2015, Emanuel showed up at the county courthouse wearing a blue-and-black repp bowtie. The baby’s mother wasn’t there, but the hearing had been convened to terminate her parental rights. At first, there had been a looming possibility that she might try to gain custody of Skylar. In her April 7 affidavit, she told the court that she would rather take the baby herself than let Chris have her. “If there is any reason that [the adoptive couple] are not able to keep custody of Skylar, I think it would be better for Skylar to be with me than to be with Chris.”

But she never followed through. On December 9, she came to the office of Jennifer Mook, Emanuel’s attorney, to inquire about signing a consent form to terminate her parental rights. “She did not ask any questions about Skylar or even mention her,” Mook said. She did go on to sign the consent form, though with another attorney in a different office.

At the final hearing, the judge condemned Skylar’s mother and her parents. “The court is very concerned about the deception of the Defendant in denying the Plaintiff his parental rights,” the judge said. “The court is concerned with the Defendant’s deception to the court … The conscious and continuing deception of the Defendant is very concerning. The court is also concerned about the ignorance and racism exhibited by the Defendant and the Defendant’s family.”

Although Skylar no longer had a legal mother, she now had a vast network of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. About 20 of them came to the courtroom that day. Like Emanuel, most of them were dressed formally. On other occasions, they could be seen wearing matching t-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag #teamskylar. A court-appointed advocate had spent time with them and reported back to the judge, who then made her final ruling.

“The Plaintiff is fit and proper to be the parent of this child,” the judge declared. “He is able and willing to care for the child and provide for the child’s welfare. He has a plan of guardianship in place should he be unable to care for the minor child because of death or incapacity. He has strong and good female role models within his familiar system that the minor child has relationships with.”

With that, the judge ordered the court to remove his ex-girlfriend’s name from Skylar’s birth certificate, and the case was sealed.

Ashley Nicole Jacoby and Danielle Burgo contributed research assistance to this story.