Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 5|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
This dictate to abruptly sever the bond with a vulnerable child — to simply cease reading bedtime stories or cheering at soccer games or wiping away tears — sounds coldhearted. But courts in Pennsylvania and many other states are suspicious of men who claim they were defrauded into serving as father but who, after discovering the truth, nonetheless continue to behave exactly as a father would. Looking through the narrow lens of legal reasoning, courts seem to conclude that these men are perpetuating the fraud and worsening the child’s confusion and pain by prolonging a doomed relationship. In reality, however, the requirement to cut ties often destroys the relationship by forcing men to choose between their desire for retribution and their desire to remain the child’s parent.
Hudson chose the former path, though he told me he had hoped his ex-wife would allow him time with the boy. “What do you do with that information?” Hudson says of the DNA results. “Do you just stick it in your back pocket and forget about it?” But if he wanted to maintain that relationship, he was disappointed. The boy’s mother said if Hudson wasn’t going to be the father for financial reasons, he couldn’t see the boy either. Court records show she also told the child his father no longer wanted him. Hudson and his former wife have another child, a daughter. When he goes to pick her up and tries to talk to the boy, now nearly 17, Hudson says that the boy turns and walks away.
Mike’s enduring attachment to L. became the central question of a hearing before a family-court magistrate in October 2007. Mike acknowledged that he continued to act as L.’s father, even after the DNA results, but argued he did so only because he was conned into believing L.’s genetic father would not assume responsibility. Stephanie testified, however, that she never claimed such a thing. The real issue, her attorney, Todd Elliott, told the court, was that Mike didn’t really want to stop being L.’s father.
“Every time he was given a chance to deny paternity, he never did,” Elliott said, according to the transcript. “He signed consent order after consent order because he wanted to be the father. The testimony here today is that he only did it because of some philanthropic belief that he wanted to step up. That’s not true. . . . He fought for every other weekend. He fought for having her overnight on a Wednesday. He fought for having her not be able to leave the jurisdiction. These aren’t things that someone does because they are just philanthropic. He wants to be the dad; he just doesn’t want to pay support.” Elliott’s accusation infuriated Mike, who believed it accurately described Rob, not him.
The hearing officer was persuaded by Elliott’s argument: Mike hadn’t been defrauded into admitting paternity after the DNA tests, and he had hardly abandoned L. after he learned the truth. Still, the officer ruled, Rob had also acted “essentially as a parent.” During the hearing, Stephanie testified that Rob was the biological father, and that he and L. loved each other. He had taken her on vacations to Disney World, Las Vegas and the ocean, celebrated at her birthday parties, bought her gifts and attended her soccer games and school activities. As such, the hearing officer ordered, Rob should help pay her support, too.
Despite being named a defendant in Mike’s lawsuit, neither Rob nor any legal representative for him ever showed up in court or contested the rulings. But Stephanie did. Her attorney argued in an appeal that parenthood shared by one mother and two fathers “would lead to a strange and unworkable situation.” So, the lawyer reasoned, Rob should not be forced to help pay for L.’s care. David Wecht, the state-court judge charged with hearing the appeal, agreed with Stephanie’s conclusions, albeit for different reasons. Pennsylvania law did not allow for the recognition of two fathers of the same child, he wrote in his opinion, and thus he could not order two men to pay paternal support. Wecht concluded that under the law, Mike was L.’s legal father. Fraud is the only way to rebut the key paternity doctrine, and Wecht, like the hearing officer, concluded fraud did not induce Mike to continue as L.’s dad after the DNA results; love did.
In reaching his decision, Wecht looked to a 2006 custody dispute that seemed weirdly similar to Mike’s. A married man named Kevin Moyer learned he was not the genetic father of his 9-year-old son. Still, when the marriage ended, Moyer retained partial custody and paid child support. Like Mike’s ex-wife, Moyer’s ex-wife, Vicky, subsequently married the son’s biological father, a man named Gary Gresh, who had had little contact with the boy for his first nine years of life. The child lived primarily with Vicky and Gresh, but when he was a teenager, he asked to live full time with Moyer, whom he considered his father. Moyer sought primary custody of the boy. The Greshes fought back, suing to name Gresh as the legal father instead. The appellate court, however, ruled in favor of Moyer. Gresh, the judges said, had given up his right to be a legal father by being entirely absent during the child’s first decade. Moyer, on the other hand, had provided emotional and financial support throughout the boy’s life.
Ruth Padawer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her last article for the magazine was about a dating site for “sugar daddies.”