Two Men and a Baby : Birth Fathers, Adoption's Once-Silent Partners, Seek Role in Their Children's Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A poster promoting the Independent Adoption Agency here shows a baby girl, her two smiling mothers and both fathers--a tacit easing of one of the world's oldest stereotypes.

"To put the birth father in, I think was more radical than people realize," said Bruce Rappaport, founder and executive director of the agency. "Usually when these things (adoption promotions) are done, there is just the birth mother . . . but we thought he (the birth father) ought to be there."

Because, he explained, just as more married fathers are changing domestic roles and diapers, more single fathers are reversing their attitudes toward unplanned pregnancies. Uncaring single males can and still do refuse to offer any support to the birth mother, or accept any parenting commitment to the children they have fathered.

"But more and more," Rappaport said, "there is a general movement throughout the society for men to become involved in parenting . . . and we're seeing that impact in adoptions."

* In February, in Napa, a daughter was born to Catherine Smith, a 19-year-old unmarried mother. Birth father Brian Burns, also 19, was at her side and has assisted the adoption of daughter Stephanie to Mark and Stacey Morris of Chico.

"Leaving Catherine was never an option," said Burns, an engineering student.

Said Catherine: "It was really honorable of him to stay with me . . . and very important to (daughter) Stephanie that she will know who her birth father is.

"He (Brian) has fulfilled what it takes to be a father. He has followed through and seen that his daughter can get all that is possible for her. And we have agreed to be her godparents."

* Sometime this month, another single mother, Margie Espinoza, 21, of Cottonwood, Ariz., will deliver her baby--and another birth father, Anthony Ashton of Covina, a 22-year-old printer, will stand by her and has assisted their selection of adoptive parents.

"I couldn't just take off, although I know a lot of guys have done that," Ashton said. "I'd have felt guilty about it for the rest of my life. No. It's my child. I'm the one responsible for Margie being pregnant. I'm the one who will help her through it."

* Since 1983, Rappaport's nonprofit agency--with branches in Los Angeles, Chico and San Francisco's South Bay area--has handled 650 adoptions. Six years ago, less than 10% of the birth fathers were involved. "Now, about a third are actively involved," Rappaport reported. "Another third of the (birth) fathers just cooperate, sign the forms, give medical information and stuff like that. Only a third of the fathers are difficult . . . either unknown, hard to find or hostile."

* Next month, the San Diego branch of Concerned United Birth Parents, an advocacy group headquartered in Des Moines, will hold a three-day conference in Pacific Beach. "Men in Adoption" will be the topic presented by Jim Schinn, a Southern California social worker, and Randy Perin of the Childrens Home Society, Seattle.

"In our (regional) group we have 110 members, of which about 10 are birth fathers," said branch coordinator Janet Appleford. "We as a nation are allowing men to explain their feelings and this has allowed more birth fathers to come forward and say: 'Hey, I hurt too and need your support.' "

* John Ryan is a birth father, also founder and president of the National Organization for Birth Fathers and Adoption Reform. His Baltimore-based group has 125 members working to protect and expand fathers' rights, which proves, Ryan believes, that "the stereotype of unwed fathers is false . . . a lot more men are involved (in their children's lives) than people think.

"All the registries (of adopted people), all the search agencies, all the conferences, every single group around the country is reporting more birth fathers coming forward."

* Reuben Pannor, a Los Angeles author, researcher, expert witness and clinical social worker, says he has seen society reject and trivialize single fathers into a forgotten population.

Yet during research for "The Unmarried Father," a book he co-authored with psychologist Annette Baran, Pannor's studies of teen-age birth fathers showed "quite clearly that the percentage of fathers who care was as high as 85% . . . in truth, most of them were quite sensitive and they had never forgotten the children they were responsible for."

So tough guys do dance. Real men do eat quiche. Ancient adoption myths, however, do not dissolve quite so easily.

An October cover story in Time magazine devoted 6,374 words to the complexion and options of modern adoptions--but made only two glancing references to birth fathers.

"I wrote to them about it," Ryan noted. "What upset me is that it (the story) takes the traditional view . . . only alluding to the birth father, mentioning the rights of the birth father in one sentence and then moving on."

Current public service advertisements, adoption agency videos, television movies and series--including one recent sequence of "L.A. Law"--show similar preoccupations with only the emotional pain and torn lives of birth mothers.

"Only the image of the birth father is included," said Patti McGee, the Independent Adoption Agency's Los Angeles branch director. That image, she said, is of an indifferent, uncaring escapee and a man never perceived "as being an integral part of the adoption . . . a birth father with a part, under the law, that is equal to the birth mother."

Equal Screen Time

Yet Friday another chunk of the negative was dismantled with the Los Angeles opening of the movie "Immediate Family." In the Columbia film, Glenn Close and James Woods play adopting parents building a new family around a baby and her single mother--with equal screen time and billing for the birth father.

The traditional social interpretation of single birth fathers as uncaring louts, say the experts, is not difficult to trace.

"In the long past of more than 50 years ago," Rappaport explained, "the role of the birth father was nonexistent.

"Of all unwed mothers, 40% married the father and that was the father's involvement. The other 60% put the baby up for adoption. The man was nowhere and nobody even attempted to get them involved."

All adoptions--whether arranged privately through attorneys, or handled through social service agencies--were closed. That meant little information, including medical histories, was revealed to the adoptive parents. There were no meetings between birth and adoptive parents--and subsequent investigations by adopted children, adoptive parents or birth parents met a barrier of sealed files and closed mouths.

"There was a presumption that Dad had gone over the hill and (adoption) agencies have promulgated that myth for years," said Emma May Vilardi, head of the International Soundex Registry, Carson City, Nev. Since 1975, her agency searches have resulted in more than 2,200 reunions between adopted children, parents and siblings. "But on most of the paper work from early days, it is quote, the alleged father, unquote, and you will even see that in the legal papers pertaining to specific adoptions."

Or, in the majority of cases, there was no record of the birth father. Because, author Pannor concluded, acknowledging the existence of a birth father only "complicates the situation for adoption agencies and attorneys.

"A father is going to demand rights, he is going to want to visit the child, he may want, God forbid, to be a responsible person in a child's life.

"When you're planning an adoption . . . you want to deal with a frightened birth mother who is in big trouble, the father is out of the picture and she is ready to relinquish (the child for adoption).

"You bring the father in, and you may get a very different picture. They (birth parents) may begin to look at things jointly. The father may even turn out to be a decent person."

It was not until 1972 that men began to emerge from what one adoption expert described as a "double-doored, double-bolted closet of blatant sexism."

In April of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of an Illinois man whose three children were removed by the state and taken to foster homes after the death of his common-law wife. The high court ruled the children should be returned to their father.

"What that decision did, in essence, was say that you cannot disregard the rights of fathers, that the father must have his day in court (and that) you must acknowledge the father as an important part of any adoption," said Pannor, whose research was used as evidence in the case. "That stuck. That was a real watershed."

So, Rappaport suggested, has been the stripping of stigma and mystique from the adoption process.

Descriptions from adoption's Dark Ages, references to bastards and barren women, were stricken. Softer terms and talk of birth parents or never-married mothers became part of its new language.

California stopped stamping ILLEGITIMATE in red ink across birth certificates of children born outside marriage.

There was an end, said Rappaport, to the era where single mothers were "humiliated, insulted, pushed around, told what to do and had their babies literally torn from them."

And open adoption--with both sets of parents recognized and recorded, where birth parents select adoptive parents and even serve as unnamed relatives in their child's life--became a norm.

Of an estimated 60,000 adoptions in the United States last year, more than 80% were open adoptions.

"There is a direct connection between open adoption and the role of birth fathers," Rappaport continued. "Because as long as everything was closed, the birth father really didn't matter at all.

"But open adoption brings everything out into the open and because of that, birth fathers are more likely to be involved--because now there is something for them to be involved in."

In the beginning, when Catherine Smith told him of her pregnancy, Brian Burns saw much to be involved in. But little that appeared ideal.

"So I just looked at it (the pregnancy) in terms of: 'OK, what do I do now?' " he said. Both were living at home and had decided to keep the pregnancy from their parents until the birth day. "So we went out and looked at places and got an apartment."

Marriage, Abortion?

They discussed marriage. "But that wasn't very rational," Burns said. "Cathy wanted to make sure I wanted to get married for her, and not because of the baby."

Also, there was no money for marriage and an immediate family. Cathy was a cashier in a movie theater. When not studying engineering at Napa College, Brian was a minimum-wage kitchen worker at a local hospital.

Abortion? "I left it up to her and said I would support whatever she did. My feeling is and always has been that it is her body and her choice to what happens to it."

Adoption was their final decision--although both originally saw that in its traditional light, as a closed-end, clandestine exchange between anonymous couples and that never the four would meet. Then--through the hospital that would deliver Stephanie--Brian and Cathy were told of open adoption and Rappaport's agency.

"You could say it (adoption) was selfish and that did occur to me," Burns continued. "But supposing we had kept Stephanie. What kind of a life would she have had? We had no health insurance. I didn't know how we would have . . . paid for delivery of the baby.

"But with open adoption, I could see that they weren't going to give her to just anyone . . . and that we could choose people of background, a steady income who could provide what a child needs.

"And I just couldn't guarantee that we could provide those needs."

Together, Brian and Cathy selected the Morrises from applications, letters and photographs on file with the Independent Adoption Agency.

"We picked the ones that had common interests with our own, such as, for me, liking the outdoors and sports. We liked their values, their sense of what they wanted from life . . . they looked like happy people."

The baby who would become Stephanie Morris (that name chosen by her adoptive parents) was born Feb. 25.

Her four parents were present.

Through telephone calls, visits and family outings that are more group expeditions, Brian and Cathy remain in contact with their daughter.

"Where Cathy and I were, or where we are now, I think this was the best decision," Brian said. Also, he continued, the best decision for the childless Morrises. "I feel very good that Cathy and I could do that for them."

Brian and Cathy remain close. One day, they agree, they may get married. Brian and Cathy also know that by this adoption they have removed themselves from any decision-making in their daughter's life.

"But she's not out of my life forever," Brian continued. "I hope to keep seeing her just as long as she wants to see me.

"I've had this vision of once I have a family, of sharing, of getting together with Mark and Stacey and Stephanie and everybody getting to know each other."

Such closeness does not disturb the Morrises.

"It is wonderful," said Stacey Morris, 35. "And I think it is healthier for Stephanie. As she grows older, she will always know Brian and Cathy . . . and won't have the shocks and disappointments and confusion of the adopted children I knew at school.

"They always felt less than others in some respects. But Stephanie has got two sets of parents to love her. Just one birth parent would have been OK. Two is much better."

At 19, said Mark Morris, 35, an electrical worker, he wouldn't have known how to handle Brian's dilemma.

"So I think what he did was very unselfish," Morris said. "Had he been selfish, he'd have kept his daughter." Or pushed for abortion. Or skipped town. Or hidden his identity through a closed adoption.

"This has been the ideal situation for us . . . and certainly the best thing that could happen to Stephanie," Morris added. "I couldn't see myself 15 years from now telling Stephanie: 'You're adopted, we don't know who your parents are and that's that.'

"It would be like telling Stephanie that somebody didn't love you. That's something that would affect you the rest of your life. And that's really being selfish."

'Not Too Happy'

Anthony Ashton and Margie Espinoza discussed aborting her pregnancy. "But both our values are against it," Ashton said. "We can't see killing a baby because we made a mistake."

They discussed marriage but then examined friends who had married because of unplanned pregnancies. "They're not too happy right now," he added.

A quick, closed adoption was an option but, Ashton said, that would not have allowed them to select adoptive parents for their child. "If we couldn't have done an open adoption, we probably would have kept the baby and taken turns raising it."

They do not know the sex of their unborn child. They will have no part in deciding a name. And for Ashton there is a definite ache: "I've thought about it being a son and throwing footballs and going fishing with him.

"Yeah, it hurts to know that someone else will be raising your son. But then I know that he will be better off with the other parents . . . two parents that are married, a father with a stable job and a mother who can be home all the time."

There is general agreement among child experts--including psychologist Baran and Louise Guinn of San Jose, a regional director of the Children's Home Society, that adoption can damage the emotional strength of the adoptee.

She does not agree with some estimates claiming adoptees compose 25% of patients in psychological facilities. But Guinn does believe that there is a disproportionate number of adopted adolescents in counseling, in residential treatment programs and juvenile halls.

"In a child's own search for its beginnings, they know their nurturing parents but a piece is missing by not knowing their biological parents," she said. "That has an effect on an adolescent's self-esteem, self-identity and confidence."

Knowing a mother but knowing nothing of the birth father, Rappaport said, can be just as destructive. "Without the birth father, you (adopting parent) have to say: The woman who brought you into the world was really a decent, wonderful woman.

"The guy? A real jerk.

"Well, that's half your genes. Who wants to know that one-half of the persons who brought them into the world was bad?"

To researchers such as Reuben Pannor, 66, any man who skips and denies a child he has fathered risks the same remorse and pain felt by any mother giving up a child.

Said Pannor: "After World War II, this became quite a problem because there were a number of GIs overseas who fathered children and never acknowledged it. When they came back to the States, it stayed with them, it troubled them."

Today's man, he believes, faces identical problems of denying "a situation that probably is the most important one he will ever face . . . responsibility towards a human being that he was a part of creating, that carries a part of him and a historical connection with the extended family."

John Ryan, through his National Organization for Birth Fathers and Adoption Reform, opposes any laws, organizations or individuals blocking the growth of open adoptions or the expansion of fathers' rights.

It has placed him at odds, he says, with Beverly Hills lawyer David Leavitt.

Leavitt is an adoption specialist who in a 28-year career has placed 7,000 children with adoptive parents. He feels that agitation among single fathers for equal rights with birth mothers "is an outrage" and the 1972 Supreme Court decision that stirred such interest, was "murky."

In that twilight, he says, it might have seemed "as though the Supreme Court of the United States said that (single) mothers and fathers were equal and that you couldn't have an adoption without the father's OK.

"Even if he was a rapist? Or was any guy who inseminated a girl? Ten minutes and he's gone? Well, that's not what it said and the Supreme Court has been whittling away at it ever since."

Instead, Leavitt believes that the court was addressing the rights of single parents involved in extended relationships where "she consented or there was almost a contractual agreement that their intercourse should result in a pregnancy."

Under such circumstances, single parents should share child rights similar to those of marriages where "it is implicit in the relationship that children are expected and will follow and therefore the creation of the child is with the consent of the mother."

Further, he said, California law has, since 1850, protected the rights of birth fathers in extended relationships.

But in casual sex, Leavitt continued, the intention is not to create a child and such a birth "is fortuitous and accidental . . . in my opinion, this is a mother's problem (to decide) because it is her life that is on the line, it is her future that is irretrievably involved in this."

By another Supreme Court decision, he said, a woman has the right of privacy over her own body when it comes to deciding on abortion. And she alone, he said, should have the right to decide adoption.

"I feel that it is an outrage to permit an unwed father--who has not created this child in a situation where you would imply the consent to make babies--to interfere," he said. "I feel he should have minimal rights.

'He Can Walk Away'

"He doesn't have 50% of the bargain in my estimation. He has less than 1% of the bargain. It took him 10 minutes to get her pregnant, it took her nine months to get the baby born. Her entire life is involved in it. He can walk away."

Leavitt feels that claims concerning more fathers becoming involved in single births is "mostly hullabaloo . . . most birth fathers are running for the hills.

"Sure, there are occasional fathers who are screaming. But most of the time when fathers come forward to fight it is (because) their mothers don't want the grandchild given away."

Leavitt insists he does not want to denigrate "men who care about babies that they conceive" and his concern is largely with "an unintended, accidentally conceived baby.

"This is not a blessed event, it is a disastrous event," he concluded. "As sympathetic as I am to the father who cares, who is willing to do his duty, I believe that must defer to the needs of the woman in whose body this accident . . . has occurred."

Leavitt says he speaks for the majority.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the rights of single fathers would seem to support that opinion.

In June, the court refused to allow Michael Hirschensohn, 46, of Los Angeles, paternity rights to a daughter born after his affair with a married neighbor. Blood tests showed a 98.07% probability that Hirschensohn was the father.

Instead, the court upheld the constitutionality of a California law presuming a woman's husband to be the father of her child as long as he is living with her and is capable of fathering a child.

Last year, the high court heard Edward McNamara's challenge to a couple's adoption of his 7-year-old daughter conceived during a brief affair between McNamara and a woman he met at a San Diego convention.

Court Ruling

Bachelor McNamara, a contractor's estimator from La Habra, filed for custody of the child when she was 5 weeks old. But a San Diego court decided the adoption could proceed without the birth father's consent in the "best interests" of the child.

In December, the Supreme Court dismissed McNamara's appeal of the San Diego ruling.

And now comes Derek Allen, 22, of Fresno, a history major from UCLA and birth father to a daughter born in June. Allen and the single mother--his girlfriend of several years--have signed papers allowing adoption of their daughter by a Northern California couple.

But Allen has changed his mind.

He recently filed suit in a Fresno court to regain custody of his daughter.

"I feel I have a responsibility here," he said. "I feel the best interest of the child is to be with her biological parent . . . and one biological parent is better than any two adoptive parents."

Yet Allen isn't high on his own chances.

"Frankly, I don't think it stands a snowball's chance," Allen commented. "But 20 years ago I'd have been laughed out of an attorney's office. Today, at least, I've got an attorney willing to take my case.

"That's probably about the only thing (for fathers' rights) that has been accomplished. But there is that snowball. That's what is keeping me going."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°