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Challenging laws forcing non-fathers to pay child support

The Sacramento Bee
Sunday, June 16, 2002

Men challenging laws forcing non-fathers to pay child support
by DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Armed with the latest in genetic technology, aggrieved
men across America are attacking a centuries-old legal doctrine that has
forced them to pay child support even after they belatedly discover they
are not the child's biological father.

Georgia enacted legislation in May allowing a man to stop paying
court-ordered support if DNA tests prove he did not father the child in
question. A similar bill has reached the California Senate after clearing
the state Assembly. Measures have been introduced in several other states,
including Vermont, Massachusetts and Michigan.

Opponents of the bills worry that children will be suddenly deprived of
long-term relationships and financial support, while supporters say the
real issue is fairness. If DNA testing can free wrongfully convicted Death
Row prisoners, it should be able to extricate men from child support
orders based on false premises, they argue.

"It's not American," said Dan Conners, 39, of a California court ruling
that has forced him to pay $1,400 a month to support a girl who - he
learned six years after her birth - is not his daughter.

Like most states, California makes it difficult for men like Conners to
disestablish paternity once they have formally acknowledged it. The
practice stems in part from a 500-year-old doctrine of English common law
that presumes a man is the legal father of any child born to his wife during
their marriage.

In Conners' case, he was willing to pay child support after his divorce in
1993 because he believed at the time that the 2-year-old girl he helped
raise was his. But Conners learned through blood tests in 1997 that he was
not the biological father, and was rebuffed in court when he tried to
nullify the support order.

Opponents of the California bill say any injustice to men like Conners is
outweighed by a child's needs.

"People look it at this as a simple matter of equity and fairness, but they
don't look at the complexities of how it affects children," said attorney
Valerie Ackerman of the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif.

"If somebody's been supporting a child, you can't just choose to pull the
plug because you find out biology is not an element of that paternal
relationship. You need to follow through on the commitment."

While the California bill faces an uncertain future in the state Senate, the
Georgia bill cleared both legislative chambers by overwhelming margins.

One of the most vociferous supporters of the Georgia bill was Carnell
Smith, who discovered through DNA testing that the girl he thought was his
daughter was in fact not his, but lost a bid to quash his child support order.

"Paternity fraud is the only crime where the victim is persecuted for the
actions of the guilty party," said Smith, an engineer from Decatur, Ga.,
who has formed a national group called Citizens Against Paternity Fraud.

Though he is encouraging other legislatures to emulate Georgia, Smith
believes state-by-state changes will come too slowly. He filed an appeal
with the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of establishing a broad precedent
that would spare other men from his predicament, but the high court this
month refused to hear the case.

Smith contends that non-fathers should be reimbursed by the mother for
child support paid under the mistaken belief of paternity.

"We men have been duped and shanghaied and made into involuntary
servants," Smith said. "If you want men to be responsible for the children
they bring into this world, you've got to make women responsible too."

Of the current batch of proposed bills, the toughest has been introduced
in Vermont by state Rep. Leo Valliere.

In addition to allowing child support orders to be voided, the bill would
create a new crime of paternity fraud. Anyone knowingly making false
assertions that a man is the biological father of a child could face up to
two years in prison.

Valliere doesn't expect swift passage of his bill, though he says
encouragement has come from across party lines.

"It can be devastating to have an attachment to a child you really believe
is yours, and then to feel cuckolded, defrauded in the worst way," he said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are now
more than a dozen states that allow disestablishment of paternity in some
circumstances, based on genetic testing. Several states have time limits for
challenging paternity after the birth of a child, though the Georgia bill and
an Ohio bill passed in 2000 set no time limits.

In a recent briefing paper for the NCSL, analyst Christi Goodman said
advances in DNA-based paternity testing are "stirring a hornet's nest of
public policy issues."

Court rulings on voiding paternity judgments "are all over the map,"
increasing the pressure on lawmakers to address the matter, Goodman wrote.

The paternity issue has been embraced by many activists in the fathers'-rights
movement, which contends that the family court system favors women in
post-divorce disputes over child support, custody and visitation.

Lowell Jaks, director of the Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents' Rights,
is urging alliance members to lobby their legislators for bills like the
Georgia measure.

"The time to strike is now," Jaks wrote on his group's Web site. "This is
absolutely the first time that any common sense principle is being applied
to the issue of child support."

Advocates of the proposed bills in California and other states say the
measures would not only discourage fraud, but also reduce the chance that
children might face medical problems linked to not knowing the true
identity of their biological father.

"The best interest of all children is to have access to their biological
family medical history," said Dr. Damon Adams, a Traverse City, Mich.,
dentist who is urging passage of the bill pending in the Michigan
legislature. He hopes the measure would prompt mothers to disclose the
true identity of the biological father in cases where the presumed father
overturned a paternity judgment.

Ackerman, the National Center for Youth Law attorney, said she objects to
the California bill, and others like it, because it would prolong uncertainty
about paternity.

"If a man does not believe he is the father and wishes to contest
paternity, the time to do so is early in the process," she said. "If
someone chooses to not contest paternity, then they should live with the
consequences of being that child's father, and not try to change it years
down the road."

California law already allows a child support order to be set aside if it
is based on clear-cut fraud, Ackerman said.

"Passing a bill like this opens the door to cases that are not extreme, and
would disrupt the whole system," she said. "That's not good public policy."

On the Net:

Citizens Against Paternity Fraud:

National Center for Youth Law:

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Copyright The Sacramento Bee / ver. 4
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