You Are Not the Father! (So What Happens Now?)


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?”



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Ron

    Riveting it was indeed. The law doesn’t do a very good job with grey areas and judges seem inclined to go the way of the automaton when it comes to situations like this, rather than acting as neutral arbiters. Maybe arbitrators should determine these cases rather than backlogged courts?

    • right. the most frustrating thing in Mike’s case was that it seemed like a failure of legal imagination. Maybe someone with a J.D. can answer this: is there any space for court-mandated visitation rights for someone who is neither a biological parent or a non-custodial parent?

  • You know, I’ve occasionally wondered about this stuff from a reverse point of view – but I haven’t thought about the courts and law before. I have 2 stepparents, neither of whom have their own children, and as they age, if for any reason either of them outlived my parents (both very involved in my life), what responsibility would I have legally to care for them? From a relationship perspective I would, but let’s say hypothetically one of them went bananas or something and I needed to have them hospitalized, or I wanted to try to compel them to come live with me, or something, how would the courts recognize me as their “child” given they’ve both pretty much actively raised me alongside my biological parents? (PS: Both are happy and healthy so hopefully none of these scenarios come to pass! But it’s a bit of a top-heavy family structure around here. :) )

  • Steve

    This is a super complicated and shifting area of law, that I’m not taking a class on until next semester.. LOL.

    • shani-o

      PLEASE let us know what you learn.

  • Oh, these murky legal areas make for some damn good articles.

    I’ve been thinking about this recently as I attended the funeral services for J, my cousin’s stepson. My cousin married Y, when the boy was about 8 or 9. They divorced a few years ago after having a son together. At the services, the biological father (who I am told never was part of J’s life) sat front and center, across from the Y (mother) and J’s grandmother. My cousin sat several rows back, behind the reserved section. He was not acknowledged by the chaplain as the father, instead the biological father was mentioned.

    My cousin never said anything, except when he told his cousins, “J was in our lives for more than 10 years. He was my son and I loved him very much.”

    It added a whole other awkward aspect to a tragic situation.

    • God, your poor cousin. He sounds like a good man.

  • kjo

    how timely. my brother JUST found out that his nine year old son is not biologically his. we are still trying to figure out how to cope with the emotions involved in this discovery, let alone the financial specifics. the kid is old enough to know this but does it mean he should? it’s only been about a month but my bro is still acting the same around him… ugh. this is a mess.

  • I’ll make the hard-ass bitchy point, which is that these men aren’t paying child support to their exes–they’re paying it to the kids. The man who is the primary focus of the story, after all, *does* want to maintain a paternal relationship. He just doesn’t want it to cost him anything. I gotta say that strikes me as kind of assholish, really.

    • KBJr.

      I think it’s pretty clear to anyone who has lived through the effects of a child-support system that the money in theory belongs to the child. But in theory only.

      For single mothers, mine included, child support was just another check used for household expenses. That’s fine, if these household expenses are directly contributing to the child, and child alone. But when she remarries, has several more children and carries on a lifestyle that may (or may not) be described as exorbitant, therein lies a major problem.

      Child support should not be used to take care of a mother and the rest of her family. It’s “child” support.

      So the notion that the money Mike gives to that young child is going to that child and not benefiting his ex and her husband is unrealistic. He should have a real problem. And I think he has a moral case. He should have the right to visit with his “daughter” and not be forced to pay a thin red dime. He’s gone years supporting a child that wasn’t even his, let the biological father pull some weight now. The fact that he still wants to have a relationship with the girl should not be punishable nor should the deception his ex displayed go unpunished. There ought to be a crime against that level of fraud.

      • Zesi

        The women in these stories are wrong for what they’ve done; though the decision could have been torturous at the time–the difference between being out on the street and in a home even, ultimately, good’s not going to come out of that. I don’t think these fathers should be *expected/demanded* to continue in the same role after a major fraud, kind of like how I don’t expect people who’ve been cheated on to continue in that relationship, but I do think that they should still have a role in that child’s life. Ultimately, the child is the one who will be most hurt after this, possibly financially but definitely emotionally/mentally.

      • Taking care of the mother *is* taking care of the child. As a culture, we love to pass judgment on how mothers qua mothers spend money. Even working mothers don’t escape this kind of second-guessing; we love to talk about whether or not it’s “worth” it for women to work if “their” money is “just” going to pay for childcare anyway–but no one asks that about the money men/fathers earn. One could just as easily ask why Mike (or any other man paying child support) wants the money–after all, he doesn’t have other children to support, so he’s probably just spending it on himself, right?

        • LaJane Galt

          It seems that many men forget that the purpose of child support is to support the child as he/she would have been supported had he/she grown up in an intact home. Child support goes to rent/mortgage, lights, gas, food, cable, tuition, healthcare. That includes enabling the mother to be able to do the hard part -actually raising the child 24/7.

  • Re. fraud/deception: presumably, the wife’s affair *has* been “punished”–they’re divorced, after all.

    I think this article would benefit from a little context. Historically the point of marriage, including patrilineal naming and women taking their husband’s names, etc–is to establish *legal* paternity. That was the benefit for women: that being married meant someone was legally and financially responsible for your children. In exchange, women were expected to be virgins at marriage, to remain faithful within it (men weren’t, historically, and there’s still a double standard); they had no property rights, no money of their own, no independent legal standing. It’s only very recently that, for instance, married women can have credit cards in their own names, or own property independently–and most women still change their names on marriage.

    If we think of marriage and childbearing as a joint activity, then it seems “unfair” to ask a man to raise kids that aren’t his own, maybe. But if we think of it as it’s been for hundreds of years, as an arrangement whereby men take on legal responsibility for materially supporting women and children in exchange for sexual, emotional and domestic support, then …?

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  • Houston

    I just won temporary orders of my 11 year old Daughter. I have raised her on my own for the last 11 years. Her mother had her at times but never contributed financially. Now that she has been ordered to pay child support she now want to say I’m not my daughters biological father. I now know she mostly is not my biological daughter.

    I love her more than anything in the world. I look at her and see my daughter and don’t care if I’m not the natural father. I would never stop being her father. I would never stop supporting her physically and financially. I am her father and will continue to fight to keep her with me.