Brief Fact Summary. Appellant had an ongoing relationship with a woman with whom he sired and raised three children. Upon the death of the mother the children were deemed wards of the State under an Illinois law that did not place children in the custody of unwed fathers.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The statute violated appellant’s equal protection under the laws by depriving him of custody of his children when married fathers and unwed mothers could not be deprived of custody without being shown to be unfit parents.
Issue. Does the Illinois statute violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by distinguishing against and burdening unwed fathers?
Held. As a matter of due process of law, appellant was entitled to a hearing on his fitness as a parent before his children were taken from him. By denying him a hearing when all other parents whose custody of their children is challenged are permitted one, the State denied appellant the equal protection of laws under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Under Illinois law, children of all parents can be taken from them in a neglect proceeding, but only after notice, hearing, and proof of unfitness. In contrast, an unwed father is uniquely subject to the more simplistic dependency proceeding.
The private interest of a man and the children he has sired and raised warrants deference and protection. In comparison, previous case law has not refused to recognize those family relationships unlegitimized by a marriage ceremony.
The State claims that the interest furthered by the statue is to protect the moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare of the minor and the best interests of the community. In support of this interest, the State asserts that most unmarried fathers are unsuitable and neglectful parents. However, the State registers no gain toward its goals when it separates children from the custody of fit parents. The State’s insistence on presuming rather than proving appellant’s unfitness solely on the basis of convenience is unconstitutional.
Discussion. The Court acknowledges that the State has a legitimate interest in prompt efficacious procedures furthered by the presumption that unwed fathers are unfit. However, such an interest is outweighed by the father’s right to demonstrate that he is fit when the right taken away from the father would be the right to raise his child.