RICHMOND — Barbara Jones has seen them hundreds of times: newspaper ads featuring the name of a woman seeking the father of the child she is ready to put up for adoption.
It is one of the last steps before a mother can legally give away her child without the father's permission. Miss Jones, a longtime adoption lawyer, said most new mothers could live without this burden.
"You expose this mother, who maybe sacrificed a lot to carry this pregnancy because she didn't want to abort the baby and now her name's in the paper," the Fairfax County lawyer said.
That burden is shifting.
Virginia has joined about three dozen other states that have developed registries designed to identify fathers and make it their option to take part in parental decision-making.
"Before this registry, we were totally dependent on the veracity of the birth mother," Miss Jones said. "This way, the balance of protection is phenomenal because any man that wants to know whether there's a child ... merely protects his right by registering."
Men who have been sexually active with someone to whom they are not married are required to register if they want to know whether a child is being put up for adoption or whether the mother is looking to terminate the father's parental rights.
In Virginia, a man has 10 days from the child's birth to register, though circumstances can change that time frame.
The registry, which has been in effect since July 1, will help expedite some of Virginia's 2,500 adoptions a year, said Pamela Fitzgerald Cooper, acting adoption program manager for the state Department of Social Services.
To register, men fill out a one-page form at the social services department or online. The form asks for information such as Social Security numbers, ethnicity and information on where and when they might have conceived a child.
Miss Cooper couldn't say how many men have registered, citing privacy laws.
Registering does not establish paternity, which is a separate legal process, but failure to register means the father waives his parental rights.
"The objective of giving men their rights as fathers is genuinely important in the adoption world. We've spent an awful lot of time separating men from fatherhood," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in Massachusetts.
However well-intentioned the registries, Mr. Pertman said, the problem is that most people don't know they exist.
"It is not a natural course of people's human instincts to go sign up every time they have sex," said Mr. Pertman, author of the book "Adoption Nation." "If the intent is to engage and empower fathers, so far I don't see the evidence that that's happening."
Mr. Pertman suggested a well-advertised national registry, an idea being floated by U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat. The bill, first introduced last year, awaits action from the Finance Committee.
Although the registry shifts the responsibility to the father, it also protects his rights, said state Sen. Jay O'Brien, the patron of the Virginia legislation, which resulted from a state adoption study.
"The fundamental issue about the registry is that it protects the privacy of a birth mother at a very, very stressful time for many of them," said Mr. O'Brien, Fairfax County Republican. "At the same time, it protects the paternity interests of the father."
Mr. O'Brien said the new law means that no adoption attorney can proceed without checking the registry and a birth mother can't go anywhere in Virginia to get an adoption if the father is registered.