Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 6|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
go to original
November 22, 2009
The ruling preoccupied Wecht as he considered the facts in Mike’s case. If the court recognized Moyer’s paternal role despite the lack of genetic tie — and despite the available biological father — how could Wecht disregard the role Mike had played in L.’s life, just because her biological father was now in her life?
Still, the state of the law frustrated the judge. In his opinion, Wecht wrestled with how to apply a law that requires deliberately ignoring genetic facts that are of the utmost importance to the people involved. The law’s exasperating consequence, he wrote, is that the man who “may very well be the biological father is able to avoid any direct support obligation” and the nonbiological father is left with “unjust results.”
Although Mike sensed that Wecht understood his predicament, he felt trapped by the ruling and he appealed, hoping another judge might find him a way out. When the appellate panel turned him down, Mike brought his plea to the state’s top court. Then he waited.
Carnell Smith, an engineer-turned-lobbyist in Georgia, is the leading advocate for men like Mike. In 2001, after Smith’s own paternity struggle, he formed U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, to help the men he calls “duped dads.” In his most notable success, Smith persuaded Georgia lawmakers to rescind nonbiological fathers’ financial obligations, no matter the child’s age or how close the relationship. Smith then became the first man to disestablish paternity under that law.
Smith’s movement was spurred by federal welfare reform in the mid-1990s that pressured states to track down the fathers of children born out of wedlock and make them accountable. Congress demanded that states find fathers for at least 90 percent of those kids, arguing that connecting a child to her father would improve the child’s emotional well-being. Identifying a man to tap for child support in welfare cases would also reduce government spending. The law required paternity-acknowledgment forms to be distributed at every birth by an unwed mother. It did not require states to offer genetic testing before those forms were signed, but most of the forms do note that genetic testing is available. Advocates on both sides of the issue, however, say nearly all men sign the form without undergoing testing. Sometimes they believe they are the father; sometimes they don’t understand what they’re signing; sometimes they hesitate to question a girlfriend’s fidelity right after she’s given birth; and sometimes they sign knowing full well the child isn’t theirs. If the putative father isn’t at the birth and the unwed mother is on welfare or seeking child support, she must identify the man she thinks is the father. He is then served with legal papers. If he doesn’t respond, judges usually name him the father by default.
The policy changes have been a huge success: the number of out-of-wedlock births with established paternity has more than tripled in the last 15 years, reaching 1.8 million in 2008. But as that figure swelled, so did the number of men who started having doubts. What if, they asked, the child wasn’t really theirs? New, easy-to-use technology provided them with the means to an answer. As Identigene, a paternity-testing company, says in its marketing material, “Putting your mind at ease has never been more convenient, affordable or accurate.”
With the scientific proof in hand, men like Carnell Smith began fighting back. A few months after Smith split up with his girlfriend in 1988, she announced she was pregnant with his child. Believing her, he signed a paternity acknowledgment for their daughter, Chandria. He obtained joint custody, paid her support and spent virtually every weekend with his little girl. When Chandria was 11, her mother sued to increase support. Smith decided to be tested, and the results excluded him as the father. In a lawsuit, Smith demanded Chandria’s mother pay back the $40,000 he had laid out in what he calls “involuntary servitude” and fraud. The court ruled against Smith, concluding that he had known that his former girlfriend had other partners at the end of their relationship and should have realized he might not be the father. By not exercising his “due diligence” and getting a DNA test early on, the court put the burden on Smith for not unearthing the truth sooner.
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.”