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Once a father, not always a father

http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0618/p01s01-usju.html

The Christian Science Monitor
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Once a father, not always a father
New state laws allow DNA tests to exempt fathers from court-ordered
child-support payments.
by Daniel B. Wood, CSM staff writer

LOS ANGELES - Four years after his wife left him and took their
two-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, Daniel Connors received a shock from the
child's doctor. A routine blood test showed Kaitlin wasn't his biological
daughter. A later DNA test confirmed it.

"I feel I should have a choice in how I go forward in supporting this
child," says Mr. Connors, now divorced. Over the years, he's paid $88,000
in child support. He's now unemployed, badly in debt, and facing contempt
charges for not paying $18,000 in child support in the past year.

If DNA testing can exonerate convicted criminals, why shouldn't DNA
testing free men like Connors from responsibility in cases of
court-ordered support for children they didn't biologically father? It's
one of the many moral, legal, and ethical questions that courts and
communities are twisting themselves into pretzels to answer.

A California measure now making its way through the state legislature
would give judges far more discretion than they now have to end
child-support mandates on the basis of new testing. The law passed
California's Assembly earlier this month by an overwhelming margin - 57-3,
and is being considered by the senate.

Connors thinks it would give him - and thousands like him - a fighting
chance.

"I don't want to cut this child off of all support," says Connors, an
organ transplant specialist who says he went heavily into debt because of
his daughter's medical bills. "But my financial situation has changed and
the courts won't even hear my case."

"This bill will give courts discretion in ending the nightmare of child
support if a man proves he is not the father. Until it's passed, the court
has no such power," says Stan DiOrio, chief counsel for Assemblyman Rod
Wright (D) of Los Angeles, the bill's sponsor.

The movement to end the centuries-old legal doctrine of child support -
after biological fatherhood is disproved - is gaining momentum. New laws
have been enacted in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana,
Maryland, Georgia, and Ohio, and activists are pushing for change in at
least five other states.

Legal experts say California is giving momentum to the movement - as well
as some much-needed clarity and uniformity to what the National Conference
of State Legislatures calls a "hornet's nest of public-policy issues."

California's proposed law provides latitude to judges rather than "hard
and fast" rules other states have set up, says Paula Roberts, of the
Center for Law and Social Policy, which tracks such legislation. She notes
that an early version of the bill would have exonerated all men from
child-support payments if paternity were disproven. But the current
version allows judges to consider other factors - such as established
relationships, family settings, financial arrangements, and emotional details.

"Once you get into litigation over these matters, you realize the answers
are not as simple and clear as the participants believe it is," says Ms.
Roberts.

Among the complicating issues are how to deal with the financial future of
such children and the liability of the state to return past payments.
Also, the new laws could alter the res judicata doctrine, a foundation of
the US legal system that holds once a judgment is obtained, complainants
have either no recourse to change it, or a limited time to challenge it.

Under the California provision, men would have three years from the time
they find out they are not the father to get a DNA test and take it to
court. The stipulation is being fought by parent, family, and youth groups
because of the emotional, psychological, and financial devastation it
could cause a child who has an established bond with the father.

Fathers in California now have two years from the date of a child's birth
to challenge paternity. The new law would allow challenges of fatherhood
well after children are raised and have established relationships.

This creates "significant uncertainty in the lives of many children," says
Valerie Ackerman, of the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif.
"It subverts the system by giving an incentive for men to delay in
investigating and presenting the relevant facts early in the process."

One particular concern about the new laws is what could happen emotionally
to a child whose father decides to have a DNA test and is still found to
be the biological father. Another concern is for men themselves: Mothers
can deny parental rights to men who are not the biological father. Also of
concern is the sudden financial liability assumed by states that allow men
to end child support payments. Children cut off "could end up costing
millions in welfare support from the state ... not to mention the legal
liabilities when such men sue to recover hundreds of thousands in past
payments," says Roberts.

Whatever the moral, legal, and ethical consequences the new laws offer a
chance of fairness, says Carnell Smith, founder of the national group
Citizens Against Paternity Fraud. "Truth is something that ought to be
permissible in court cases where men have been lied to."

But men's motives are often not as simple as wanting to sever financial
responsibility. For Connors it is more. "I also have the concern that
Kaitlin learn the truth about her real biological father," he says,
because blood relatives could possibly help her with organ donations or
bone-marrow transplants.

"I don't mind helping this child," Connors says, "but I have no choice.
And that, because someone lied to me and defrauded me many years ago,
is not fair."

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