Washington Times

Published 6/22/2002

'Dads' cleared by DNA fight 'paternity fraud'

Cheryl Wetzstein
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"If the genes don't fit, you must acquit."
This trademarked slogan developed by a Georgia man who has been ordered to pay support for a child he didn't father is being repeated around the country as protests grow against "paternity fraud."
Paternity fraud is where "two people are walking away with no responsibility at all the biological mother and the biological father," says Carnell Smith of Decatur, Ga., who owes $750 a month for a child even though he has two DNA tests that show that the girl isn't his.
Mr. Smith helped push for a new law in Georgia, signed in May by Gov. Roy Barnes, that allows courts to terminate child-support obligations to men who can prove they are not the fathers.
Lawmakers in New Jersey and California are considering similar laws.
These are "truth" bills, says Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, which supports the legislation.
But there is strong opposition from advocacy groups who say that fatherhood goes beyond biology and that disrupting child-support orders will bring indescribable chaos into the lives of children, family-law courts and child-support systems.
"Once someone has stepped forward as a father and acted as a father and supported a child, then even if they simply discover that they are not biologically related, they should not then abandon this child and leave him without a father," says Valerie Ackerman, staff attorney with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif.
"Our primary concern," says Courtney Joslin of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, "is that where there is an established parent-child bond, it's not in the best interest of the children to terminate that bond."
Both the youth-law center and lesbian-rights center have filed opposition to a bill introduced by California Assemblyman Roderick D. Wright to allow judges to set aside erroneous paternity judgments and child-support orders.
Mr. Wright's bill passed the Assembly in May and is now in the Senate.
Paternity establishment is an essential prerequisite to a child-support order, and federal and state authorities are constantly pushing for higher paternity-establishment rates. Thanks in part to aggressive in-hospital programs in which boyfriends are asked to acknowledge paternity when they visit their girlfriends and newborns, a record 1.4 million paternities were established in 1998, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.
Once a father is identified, a court sets a child-support order, which may last until the child is 18 years old. Child-support orders are difficult to change, and a federal law known as the Bradley Amendment prohibits retroactive forgiveness of child-support debts.
Collection is also increasingly aggressive. When Congress passed its welfare-reform law in 1996, it gave states new authority to track down child-support payments and seize assets from nonpaying parents.
All these efforts have paid off. In 2000, nearly $18 billion of the $23 billion owed that year by noncustodial parents was collected.
But the system seems ill-prepared to handle unexpected DNA results. In most states, there is a short window of opportunity to challenge paternity, and if fathers miss that window, they have to pay child support even if DNA tests subsequently prove they are not the father.
Dylan Davis of Denver, a Gulf war veteran, missed his window and now pays $1,050 a month to his ex-wife for twins that she conceived with another man.
Mr. Davis, 32, says his wife had an affair while he was at sea with the U.S. Navy. The twins were born in 1994, around nine months after Mr. Davis returned home.
When the children were infants, Mr. Davis confronted his wife about rumors he had heard about her cheating on him. She denied it and accused him of not trusting her.
The Davises moved to Colorado and divorced in 2000. Mr. Davis, who continued to hear that his wife was unfaithful, didn't bring up the parentage of his twins during the divorce but ordered a DNA test described on an Internet site afterward. The DNA test showed that the children were not his.
"I then obtained an attorney and got a blood test, which is admissible in a court of law, and a deposition from her" in which she said she had an affair and knew who the father was, says Mr. Davis, who works for a software company.
"But Colorado has a law that says that if the children are 5 years of age, you are no longer able to remove yourself as the responsible party and make this other individual accountable."
The ex-wife, Stacey Davis, doesn't want to pursue child support from the biological father, he says, because he lives in another state and "makes less than minimum wage." Mrs. Davis could not be reached for her explanation.
Mr. Davis says he is angry about injustice. "In a meeting with the state social worker the other day, the lady said, 'Why don't you just suck it up and be their dad?' And I said, 'I'm trying for two years.' "
"But this isn't something you can 'suck up.' You find out that you've been lied to and you turn around and everybody says, 'Well, sorry, you waited too long.' I still love my children, but not like I did at one time. I think it's wrong that a lie was created and the state laws are upholding that lie."
Miss Ackerman of the California youth-law center agrees that big problems arise if paternity is incorrectly assigned but insists that legislation such as the California bill is too broad.
California has been too aggressive in assigning "default" paternity and child-support orders, she says, referring to a practice in which men are ordered to pay child support even if they do not appear in court. The system needs "to make more efforts to make sure men know of paternity hearings so they have an opportunity to challenge it."
She suggests that courts be allowed to set aside child-support orders only in default cases where fathers had no relationship with the child, or only until the child is of a certain age, such as 5.
The best interests of the children means finding the appropriate person to support them, says Miss Ackerman. "It's not as if these people have no relief at all." California law enables someone who discovers he has been defrauded six months to apply for relief.
Mr. Smith of Georgia says that laws such as Maryland's, which allow unlimited time to challenge paternity, are best. Otherwise, he says, "all Mom has to do is be quiet long enough and not spill the beans."
"Like in Dylan's case," he says, referring to Mr. Davis, "Colorado has a five-year statute and, lo and behold, the divorce and the facts come out when the children are 6. What a coincidence."
Mr. Smith, who now sells DNA tests and runs a paternity-fraud Web site (www.paternityfraud.com), says Georgia's new law can't help him because he needs a new DNA test but that he is blocked by his ex-girlfriend from seeing the girl.
Instead, Mr. Smith has filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to prohibit lower courts from enforcing fraudulent child-support orders. "All men and children deserve to know the truth," he says.

copyright © 2002 News World Communications, Inc.