The New York Times Magazine has a riveting story by Ruth Padawer about the emotional and legal havoc wrought when men find out they are not the biological fathers of the children they have been raising, which has become a more common occurrence due to the availability of inexpensive DNA testing. Much of the story follows Mike L., a reportedly doting father in Pennsylvania whose marriage crumbled after he learned that his daughter, L., wasn’t “his.” (Because of the sensitive nature of the story, the names of the key players were changed.) Mike faced an array of of bad options: he could continue paying child support to his ex-wife, Stephanie — who was now re-married to his daughter’s biological father , Rob — or he could challenge the payments in court and risk losing the weekend visitation rights he had with his daughter, with whom he remained very close.
You might think that there might be some legal middle ground that was less imperfect than those two poles — say, granting Mike continued visitation rights while switching some or all of the the financial burden to L.’s biological father — but for a host of reasons, the courts have unable to find them. These situations are so messy that it seem like the best-case scenario would be resolving these cases in a way that kept the seething resentment to a dull roar.
Mike’s enduring attachment to L. became the central question of a hearing before a family-court magistrate in October 2007. Mike acknowledged that he continued to act as L.’s father, even after the DNA results, but argued he did so only because he was conned into believing L.’s genetic father would not assume responsibility. Stephanie testified, however, that she never claimed such a thing. The real issue, her attorney, Todd Elliott, told the court, was that Mike didn’t really want to stop being L.’s father. …
The hearing officer was persuaded by Elliott’s argument: Mike hadn’t been defrauded into admitting paternity after the DNA tests, and he had hardly abandoned L. after he learned the truth. Still, the officer ruled, Rob had also acted “essentially as a parent.” ….
As such, the hearing officer ordered, Rob should help pay her support, too.[Stephanie’s] attorney argued in an appeal that parenthood shared by one mother and two fathers “would lead to a strange and unworkable situation.” So, the lawyer reasoned, Rob should not be forced to help pay for L.’s care. … David Wecht the state-court judge charged with hearing the appeal, agreed with Stephanie’s conclusions, albeit for different reasons. Pennsylvania law did not allow for the recognition of two fathers of the same child …and thus he could not order two men to pay paternal support. Wecht concluded that under the law, Mike was L.’s legal father. Fraud is the only way to rebut the key paternity doctrine, and Wecht, like the hearing officer, concluded fraud did not induce Mike to continue as L.’s dad after the DNA results; love did.
In some states, someone in Mike’s position has another option: immediately severing all ties with the child they had been raising as their own, before filing suit to remove their financial obligations. Mike is obviously constitutionally disinclined toward going that route. Other fathers in Padawer’s story, like Carnell Smith, a “men’s-rights” activist in Atlanta, were not so encumbered, andtheir choices came with its own tragic fallout.
The last time Smith saw his one-time daughter was nine years ago, when she was 11. His outrage at Chandria’s mother and the system remains close to the surface. “We’re penalized for trusting our wives or girlfriends!” Smith seethed to me. He has long since lost track of Chandria. It is as if she ceased to exist once their biological connection evaporated….
She stopped seeing friends and holed up in the bathroom, scratching and picking at her skin until it bled. The more it hurt, she told me, the calmer she felt. Her hair started to fall out, her grades slipped and she had trouble sleeping, details her mother and her mother’s lawyer at the time corroborated. Chandria received counseling at her school and privately for years.“It kind of wrecked my self-esteem,” she says. “Even now, I worry about being a burden on people. I don’t want to be in the way. I don’t want to be anybody’s problem. It’s made me apprehensive about getting attached to people, because one day they’re there and the next day maybe they won’t be. You can’t help but be careful.”
Some folks wonder if the way to avoid situations like this would be to mandate paternity testing at the time of birth. Padawer rightly points out that such a policy would be problematic in different ways: it would be cost-prohibitive to implement and would still have murky legal consequences for men who seek to be guardians of children who are not theirs. It’s also probably an unwelcome intrusion into a family’s privacy.
What’s missing from this story is the perspective of the mothers in these cases; their (possibly unavoidable) absences from the story make it easy to view them as cruel and petty. (One man was told by the mother of his erstwhile son that if he didn’t want to support him financially then he couldn’t see him at all. She then told the son that the man didn’t want anything to do with him, and now the son doesn’t speak to him when the man visits his daughter from that union, who is his biological child.) Stephanie didn’t participate in the story, so we don’t know what the deal is there. But she is dogged about Mike’s continuing support for L. and is at all the hearings; neither Rob nor any attorney representing him is ever present.
“I pay child support to a biologically intact family,” Mike said. “A father and mother, married, who live with their own child. And I pay support for that child. How ridiculous is that?”