Here’s a recent story that illustrates why legal protections for parental rights are important. This is one of those cases where it’s hard to know what the truth is. One side has told its story to the press while the other side has not. But even so, there’s much to learn.
Kristy Gaffney became pregnant as a result of a relationship with a man she had met on-line. She says that she thought he was a single man named Ed Dupont. In fact, he was a married man named Emmitt Dippold.
After the baby was born, the man had Gaffney sign some papers, which (according to Gaffney) she did not understand. She was told ensured that Dippold would be recognized as a father. That’s not what the papers actually did, though. What they did was consent to adoption of the child by Dippold and his wife. Somehow Gaffney only learned about the adoption when it was in its final stages and she sued to have it overturned based on fraud.
This is where I think parental rights become important. Gaffney was clearly a legal parent to the child. Thus, this isn’t just a fraud over title to a car or a bank account. What was taken from her were her parental rights. Those are more serious, and hence a court should take allegations of fraud more seriously. In this case, the court did indeed find fraud and so vacated the consent to adoption. (This determination is being appealed.)
This case makes me wonder about how easy we make it to give up parental rights. Should it be as simple as signing a couple of forms? How clearly do the papers need to say what it is you are doing? Do we need someone–a judge or a case-worker or some neutral party–to actually ask a person giving up rights if they understand what they are doing?
From what I can tell, the general process used here–simply signing papers out of court–wasn’t the problem. It was the particular representations that were made. I wonder about whether that means there are inadequate safeguards generally.
Keep in mind, though, that safeguards have costs. Requiring a judge to review consent to adoption will make it more time consuming and expensive. Indeed, it’s probably too far in the other direction. But at least we could require that the forms be clear and reflect an expressed intention to surrender parental rights.
I confess ignorance here. I know that, as in so many other things, practice as to surrender of parental rights varies state-to-state. I do not know the range of methods used to protect parents, however. Anyone who wants to chime in on that score would be most welcome to do so.
And two final observations. First, if Gaffney’s version of events is true, then she you might say that she was essentially duped into being a surrogate for the Dippolds. She had a baby that they intended to take as their own. Second, if the adoption is invalidated, then this child’s parents are Dippold and Gaffney and one might generally expect that they will share responsiblity for raising the child. That hardly seems like a picnic.