Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 9|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
“If we had met on the ski slopes or at an airport, we might have hit it off as friends, but the fact that we believed we truly belonged to each other is why we loved each other right away like we did,” she told me. Griggs is no longer interested in finding her true biological father. For her, Ogden is enough. On each Father’s Day, she sends him a card and scrawls across the top, “I wish.”
Many of Ogden’s friends and family don’t understand why he and Griggs remained close after discovering they were biological strangers. “They don’t get the whole idea that believing you’re genetically connected makes something happen between people,” Ogden said. “All the emotions and feelings were there because we were convinced we were linked. I had committed myself to this child, and when I found out she wasn’t my child, how could I just step away?”
In late june, Pennsylvania’s highest court announced it would not consider Mike’s appeal. That left Wecht’s decision intact: Mike was the legal father and the sole man responsible for L.’s support. “It all could have been avoided from the beginning if she’d just told the truth,” Mike said of his former wife after the decision was handed down, “if she hadn’t led us to believe we were father and daughter, if she had just told me after she got pregnant that it might not be my kid.”
Three and a half years earlier, at a federally convened symposium on the increase in paternity questions, a roomful of child-welfare researchers, legal experts, academics and government administrators agreed that much pain could be avoided if paternity was accurately established in a baby’s first days. Several suggested that DNA paternity tests should be routine at birth, or at least before every paternity acknowledgment is signed and every default order entered. In 2001 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court urged the state to require that putative fathers submit to genetic testing before signing a paternity-acknowledgment form or child-support agreement, arguing that “to do otherwise places at risk the well-being of children.”
In other words, the same care that hospitals take ensuring that the right mother is connected to the right newborn — footprints, matching ID bands, guarded nurseries, surveillance cameras — should be taken to verify that the right man is deemed father.
Mandatory DNA testing for everyone would be a radical, not to mention costly, shift in policy. Some advocates propose a somewhat more practical solution: that men who waive the DNA test at a child’s birth should be informed quite clearly that refusing the test will prohibit them from challenging paternity later. Yes, the plan would reveal truths some men might not want to know. Yes, it would raise administrative costs, lower the number of paternity establishments and blow apart some families. But far fewer children would be entangled in traumatic disputes in which men they call Daddy suddenly reject them.
In the meantime, maybe the solution is to accept that lives can be messy and relationships much more complicated than the law would like. Several judges in Pennsylvania, including David Wecht, who heard Mike’s case, have used their paternity rulings as a platform to urge the Legislature or top state court to grant them the discretion to consider DNA. It is evidence, they say, that should be neither exalted nor ignored, but rather weighed as one of many factors, along with the history of the relationship and the child’s age, in determining who should raise a child and who should pay for his or her upkeep. In other words, maybe a nonbiological father could be granted custody rights even if the biological father is charged with paying support. A small but growing number of courts in other states have gone this route, but such arrangements are still rare. “There shouldn’t be any reason why custody couldn’t be treated differently than paternity and support, each looked at on its own merits,” Wecht says. “But many states, including Pennsylvania, haven’t begun to grapple with these issues yet. They are exceedingly complex, intellectually and legally, and perhaps most significantly, the issues are hotly disputed politically.”
L. says she wishes her parents, Mike and Stephanie, had taken a DNA test when she was a baby instead of waiting until she had a firm — but inaccurate — sense of who her biological father was. It’s not that she wishes Mike hadn’t turned out to be her dad; it’s that, having had Mike as her dad for so long, she can’t bear that he turned out not to be her father.
As Mike’s case wended its way through the courts, Mike asked L. to take another DNA test, this one with witnesses. He knew the appellate court was unlikely even to consider DNA evidence, but if it did, he wanted to make sure the veracity of his test results would not be questioned. L. wavered. Why help him prove he wasn’t her dad? “I didn’t really want to be reminded of that,” L. said.
Eventually, she yielded, and the test confirmed she was not Mike’s biological daughter. She was disappointed. She had been secretly nursing a fantasy that provided her own “Parent Trap” ending. “I got a picture in my head,” L. said, “that the test people would call and say they had been wrong, that he really was my biological dad and that everything I had thought before never really happened.”
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.”