When I graduated from law school in 1973, the Texas Digest broke down the law into 427 different subsections, from abandonment to zoning. The section listing cases pertaining to children who were born out of wedlock were listed under the subcategory "bastards." Much has changed since then. We now refer to said children (appropriately) as "children without presumed fathers." The number of these children has exploded over the years. Currently, about one in every three births in the United States is a child without a presumed father.
In the late 1980's, there were several high profile cases involving termination and adoption of such children. One of most egregious cases involved an unwed mother who, after relinquishing her parental rights and placing the child for adoption, changed her mind, teamed up with the father (about whom she had previously lied to hide his identity), and demanded custody back from the prospective adoptive parents. She won her case and got the child back. The states began searching for a constitutional solution to quickly and permanently eliminate the parental rights of fathers who did not come forward and assume responsibility upon birth of the child. The concept of a paternity registry for fathers of these children was born, and received constitutional approval by the United States Supreme Court in Lehr v. Robinson, 463 U.S. 248.
In Texas, we created our Paternity Registry in 1997, where fathers may register, acknowledge and assert parentage of such a child. Unless a father registers, Section 160.402 of the Texas Family Code states that the father is not entitled to notice of termination or adoption of his child. He has 31 days from the birth of the child to register.
What does this mean in the real world? If the father fails to register, under certain circumstances, his parental rights can be terminated without any notice to him, even if he is living with and supporting the mother and his child.
It is unlikely that many people outside the legal profession have ever heard of the Paternity Registry, much less know how to properly file a Notice of Intent to Claim Paternity. With so many children born of teen pregnancies and the profound societal changes that are underway in this country involving marriage, the significance of the Paternity Registry and the statutes involving a father’s rights are traps for the unwary. If fathers who have children outside marriage want a relationship with that child, it is imperative that they properly register that interest or risk losing all parental rights, sometimes without any notice. The paternity registry is located at the Texas Department of State Health Services, Vital Statistics, 100 West 49th Street, Austin, Texas 78756, or you can get more information at www.dshs.state.tx.us.