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Meeting Mr. Right, who is not Dad

Introducing a new parent figure into a child's life is a big step that many of us has been through.  An urbanMama recently emailed, seeking your experience and perspective:

I have a 3 1/2 year old daughter.  I have been separated from her father since she was 15 months old. Since that time he has had NO interaction or contact with his daughter. We have no legal statements of custody (legally, I believe this means that we have joint custody. All of his parental rights are intact.) He has had NO visitation, pays NO child support. He and I do not even speak; not because we are uncivil but because when we separated we separated completely. 

I have recently met the man whom I believe I am going to marry. We have talked about him adopting my daughter.  Does anyone know anything about the adoption requirements in the state of Oregon? I am assuming that my daughter's father will have to sign adoption papers if we wish for my current boyfriend to legally adopt my daughter.

More importantly, has anyone had experience with integrating a father figure into a young child's life? My daughter has never known a father, although she has recently begun to ask things like "Where's my dad?" and "Why don't I have a dad?" as she has started to interact with friends who have both a mother and a father.  I'd love to hear anyone's story, advice, opinion, etc about introducing a father figure into her life at this age.  I have no intention of expecting her to call this new person "Dad".  He and I both feel that if that day comes, wonderful but that is something we will let her come to on her own terms. But how do you EXPLAIN the role of father if and when she asks if this person is her dad?  I believe in being honest and fair with her. I'd like to be able to answer her questions as honestly and as safely, in terms of her development, as I can. I know I don't have all the answers. So, I'd love any support or advice anyone has to share. Book recommendations are always appreciated! :-)

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Even though biological Dad has no contact with your daughter, don't expect him to sign over his rights, without a fight. I had a friend, with the same story, and the father refused to sign off his rights.

Having said that, I think explaining to a young child, that a father is someone who loves and takes care of them. A father is someone who protects them and keeps them safe. It sounds like boyfriend, is already acting the role of "father" and deserves to be called that in the future :)

However, if the father hasn't financially supported your child since she was born, it's possible that is legal grounds for terminating his parental rights regardless of whether dad actually wants to sign off or not. If I'm right, it's called abandonment and it has to be continuous and for an extended period of time.

The Oregon state bar has a referral service; 35$ will get you a consultation and the answer to your legal question. http://www.osbar.org/public/ris/ris.html#referral You could research it online, but I think you're better off getting an opinion from an attorney who does adoptions. Good luck!


Actually, I have never known anyone who has been able to terminate rights solely for not paying child support. Courts tend to lean towards preserving absent father's parental rights.

If he doesn't agree to the adoption, then there's a court proceeding to terminae rights. Expensive, and no guarantee of success.

And I would take my time about inserting a partner into a parent role. It's really hard not to when kids clearly are wanting and curious about it. Introducing another person that will love and care (hopefully FOREVER) is more important than "insert father figure here". I've seen all kinds of outcomes.

But I'm a "career" single parent, so your milage may vary.

Hi ProtestMama: as a lawyer (albeit one who is licensed, but not practicing in Oregon), I *have* in fact seen an absent parent's rights terminated on abandonment grounds. (It helps when the parent doesn't have other meaningful contact w/ the child, as in this case) But disclaimer: I don't know Oregon law on this topic, so you may be right in this instance.

On the other hand, any dad who after 3 years of doing absolutely nothing suddenly decides he wants to be parent of the year and assert his rights would be well-advised that he may be on the hook for retroactive support as well as ongoing support. Sometimes that can give a mom like the original poster some leverage. Whether or not the mom desired support from the dad, the law pretty much everywhere says that the child is entitled to support from both parents.

Just something for the OP to keep in mind.

I agree that finding a really good attorney in Oregon who specializes in adoption is the way to get the clearest answers to many of your questions, obviously particularly the legal ones regarding your child's biological father's rights.

In the end, if you are unable to terminate his rights or it takes a very long time, don't be discouraged that your daughter cannot form a tight and very meaningful bond with your current boyfriend and possible future spouse. My father remarried (he had custody of my sister and I) when I was 10 and my sister 8. Though we were much older than your daughter is now, and we did have some type of relationship with our biological mother, we formed incredibly solid relationships with our step-mother, whom we always called by her first name or in print (cards, letters, etc.) we called her Mom2 (mom-squared.) Our family always felt whole and even more so when my father and step-mother added a couple more siblings to the mix! Great fun. Best of luck to you, your daughter and your partner. A good life lay ahead. :)

Keep in mind.....if your new guy adopts your child & you get divorced...he will have to pay CHILD SUPPORT!! This happens a lot I worked in the field for 10yrs. He needs to know this before hand....trust me, I have been where you are...you say it could never happen...yes it can. The new daddy will be ANGRY!!! I hope it works out for you.

I am curious about why your daughter's bio dad terminated contact with her? Maybe that's more info than you want to share, but I am just curious why you and he and not "uncivil", yet have no contact, especially he with her. Is it a possibility that he will want contact in the future, or is this situation permanent?
Also, I wouldn't worry too much about the adoption procedures just yet. Your new partner's integration into you and your daughter's family will happen at it' own pace regardless of the legal side of things. If it were me, I would just take each development as it comes. If she asks about her dad and where he is, perhaps just try to answer as factually as you can with keeping it age appropriate. Maybe, try to minimize the level of his prior involvement in her life, stick to the biological side of things. Does she see pictures of him? His abandoning her is bound to be a bit difficult for her at some point, but maybe not yet.
And if you tell her what a dad does (protects, reads stories, takes care of her, plays, cooks dinner, whatever) you could be describing things your new partner is doing with/for her already. You could point that out. Like "a dad reads stories to his kids at night, just like *blank* does" If she asks if your new partner is her dad, in certain ways he is. I think 3 1/2 might be old enough to explain biological dad vs. dad who is in your life. This is getting into birds and bees territory. which is a whole other ball of wax. If you have the wherewithal to do it, this might be a great time for the three of you to see a family therapist to ease this transition. Good luck to your family.

I think your boyfriend/fiance can be a wonderful dad without legally being your child's father. There's no need to rush into adoption. This man is marrying you and committing to you and your daughter, which is wonderful. Why not leave it at that til your daughter can consent to the adoption?

You also said you have only recently met this man. I would like to gently suggest you slow down a bit and not rush his relationship with your daughter, especially not legally. There's no advantage to rushing, and plenty of potential for you both to get very hurt.

I might be missing something, but I don't understand the need to even think about adoption at this point in your daughter's life. Perhaps you could wait until she's older and allow her to have a say in who is legally her father. I can see if your new partner needs to establish parental rights at some point, but I would not even worry about that until you are married and are certain it's a completely stable situation.

Also, you mention that you separated completely from the father, but when there is a child involved, that is not necessarily possible. I'm all for protecting a child if her father is abusive or a threat in any way, but otherwise, keeping the lines of communication open is something you sort of owe to her. Or at least keep track of where he is. I had an absent father who probably did more harm than good in my life, but I found that knowing where he was and how he was doing was better than the years where he was out of touch and I was just left to wonder.

And though my mom had several long term relationships after my dad (no marriages), we always knew it was the kids and mom no matter what. The security of that relationship turned out to be all my sister and I needed in the end.

Best of luck!

There are plenty of advantages to having legal parental rights, ranging from travel to medical care. I'm not saying that's what should happen in this case, but there are plenty of advantages that are probably an even bigger deal when a child is small.

I agree that maybe you should just slow down and take one thing at a time. Your daughter has questions about her father. Start there, and not by rushing to replace her birth father with a step father. It's a good idea to help her see that families come in all shapes and sizes; a mom and a dad, one mom, one dad, two moms, two dads, step parents, grandparents, foster parents, etc, etc. What defines a family is not the members involved, but rather the bond between them. The truth is, at 3.5, if this new man turns out to be your life partner, then she will not remember a time before him. On the other hand, if he adopts your little girl legally and things don't work out between you, he can fight for custody of her. If it were me, I'd wait, as others suggested, until your daughter was old enough to express her wishes on the matter.

A friend of mine was able to pay her husband (now ex) $20,000 to sign off on all his parental rights after he abandoned her and their son in the middle of the night. I'm not saying that will work for most people, but it's something to think about if you'd prefer to have the biological father truly out of the picture...maybe he'd be the type to go for it.

Definitely go see an attorney. You can pay up to $150 to $300 for an hour consultation, but it is so worth it for very important questions like you have. If the biological father hasn't paid support and hasn't tried to visit the child or have other meaningful contact for the last 12 months, it's important to act BEFORE that changes, or your case suddenly goes from being somewhat straightforward to uphill and expensive.

That means go see a lawyer and consider taking legal action before bio dad suddenly inserts himself into the picture again. All it would take is bio dad paying some child support one or two months, or even TRYING to have contact with your daughter.

I'm not saying the thing to do in this case is to terminate his rights, but if it is, the timing can be crucial.

Also whoever you go to see, ask about "open adoptions." Having an open adoption (which can mean different things, depending on how "open") can take some of the psychological sting out of the situation for your daughter.

In most cases, it's in your child's best interest to have a relationship with both biological parents, even if the relationships aren't perfect. But if bio dad isn't stepping up to the plate, good luck with the adoption (assuming things work out with your boyfriend!).

Another thought from a divorcee-- right now the dad is out of the picture and you do things your way. By contacting him about terminating his rights, you may just be stirring up the pot. Then you could find yourself not only trying to build a new family structure with the new guy (which could be harder then you think even with him being great as it takes a while in my experience to get into really nitty gritty parenting style opinions), but also dealing with the stress of Bio-Dad either being angry, or wanting to suddenly be involved, or a legal battle. I say go to the lawyer and find out stuff, but give your new relationship time to be totally settled and rock solid before you stir that pot.

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