Proposed Bill Seeks To Clarify An Unmarried Father’s Rights In Dependency Proceedings
Dependency cases are supposed to help children living in dangerous situations leave that environment, and help parents fix existing problems so the child can return home. While the reality of the process may differ from the stated goal, the participation of both parents is important to achieving the desired end. However, unmarried men who father children may not have an opportunity to engage in dependency proceedings since they may not be legally recognized as the child’s father, and thus would not receive notice of the case. This gap in notice could result in a man losing his parental rights before realizing he needed to assert them. In order to give both parents an opportunity to foster a meaningful relationship with their child, Florida legislators are currently considering a bill aimed at addressing how the prospective father fits within the dependency process, and aims to clarify how dependency courts should seek to identify potential unmarried fathers. It would also establish how these men can claim or disclaim connection to a child. A discussion of how this proposed bill would address the participation of prospective fathers into the dependency process will follow below.
Duty to Attempt to Identify a Prospective Father
The underlying purpose of a dependency case is to determine whether a parent is fit to care for his/her child, and, if not, to terminate parental rights. Part of this evaluation often includes at least temporary removal of the child from the home, which must be justified at a shelter hearing. If a child has only one legal parent present, one half of a child’s potential support is missing. To remedy this situation, the proposed legislation would require courts to inquire into the identity of a prospective father at the shelter hearing by asking those present if there is any information related to a man married to the mother at the time of conception or birth, a man named formally as the father by the mother, or the existence of a legal declaration of paternity. Further, a diligent search of the Florida Putative Father Registry must be conducted, a database to which a man can add his name to secure some parental rights if he believes he fathered a child with an unmarried woman, and the woman refuses to divulge relevant information about the child’s existence. If the identity of a potential father is discovered through this process and is locatable, notice of the dependency action must be sent. However, notice is not necessary if the man disclaims paternity or consents to the termination of parental rights.
Right of Prospective Father to Assert Parental Claim
The notice of the dependency case must inform the prospective father he has 30 days to assert any parental rights needed to challenge the dependency petition, which requires that he do the following:
- file a paternity claim with the Florida Putative Father Registry;
- legally establish himself as the child’s father under State law;
- file a document with the court committing to be the child’s parent, consenting to the court’s jurisdiction, and including a request to calculate and impose child support;
- pay child support; and
- take steps to establish a meaningful relationship with the child, as permitted by the court.
The court then determines if the father successfully asserted his parental rights, and if not, the father loses the right to contest the dependency case, receive further notices about the case, or challenge the termination of parental rights. Importantly, if an unmarried father is not identified following an inquiry, and thus, does not receive notice, the lack of notice is not a defense that can undo a declaration a child is a dependent of the State (a step towards terminating parental rights).
Seek Legal Advice
Dependency cases are serious and complicated matters that need the attention of an experienced attorney to adequately represent a parent’s right to keep their child. The attorneys at the office of Joyce A. Julian, P.A. understand the concerns parents facing this overwhelming situation face, and help clients in the Fort Lauderdale area do everything legally possible to get the child back home. Contact the office today for a free consultation.