Published 2:00 p.m. PDT 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: http://paternityfraud.com
National Center for Youth Law: http://www.youthlaw.org
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