Tampa Tribune News

Jan 26, 2003

He's Not Dad, But Budget Trumps DNA

By JOE FOLLICK
jfollick@tampatrib.com
Tampa Tribune

TALLAHASSEE - The booming movement of men forced to pay child support for children they didn't father has a snappy rallying cry: ``If the genes don't fit, you must acquit.''

But two weeks after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a Tampa police officer must continue paying $8,000 a year to support a child that's not his, state lawmakers may have their own reasons to not change the law: ``The DNA test may be right, but our budget's too tight.''

The problem for lawmakers: If thousands of men paying child support for children they didn't father were let off the hook, the state might have to pay millions in increased assistance to handle an influx of single mothers receiving no support.

Michael Anderson, the officer who took his case to the Supreme Court, is asking the court for a rehearing - a long- shot request. He said the state's objection to changing the law is misplaced.

``I don't think Florida wants to take [fiscal] responsibility for each kid. They don't have to. Just make the real father [pay]. Or say to the mother, `I'm giving you six months to find the real dad or you'll lose any [state assistance]. I guarantee the mothers will find the fathers then,'' Anderson said.

Michael and Cathy Anderson married in 1994 after she told him she was pregnant with his child. They separated in 1995. In 1997, Anderson was told he might not be the child's father and had the child take a DNA test, which showed he was not the father.

Cathy Anderson, who was unavailable for comment, contends he is the father. The Supreme Court said Michael Anderson did not prove her assertion that he was the father was fraudulent and ordered him to keep paying support.

Since DNA testing became affordable and accessible in the 1990s, nine states have changed their laws to allow men to stop paying support if they can prove they are not the biological father.

In California last year, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar bill. Among his reasons for the veto, Davis said $40 million in federal funding was in jeopardy.

The federal government asks states to identify the fathers of children whose mothers are receiving benefits. California officials worried that an onslaught of DNA testing of children currently receiving federal funds would put put those funds in jeopardy since the real fathers may not be identified.

There's no survey showing how such a bill would affect Florida. But a 1999 Florida Department of Revenue study hints at the number of men paying child support who may not be the true fathers.

That study found that about one-third of men identified by mothers as possible fathers in child support cases were found not to be the fathers after DNA testing.

Department spokesmen Dave Bruns said the state would be hard-pressed to find the real fathers should a law remove the burden of child support from non-fathers.

``Until we could identify who the real dad is and begin making collections, then that family is likely to go on public assistance,'' Florida Department of Revenue spokesman Dave Bruns said.

Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, said a state's fiscal concerns shouldn't be an excuse.

``States are condoning fraudulent behavior out of fear they're going to lose money,'' she said. ``It's simple: If a man didn't father a child, how can he be made to support that child?''

But to others, it's not that simple. In Anderson's case, the state of Florida argued on behalf of his ex-wife that fatherhood is not merely a matter of biology and that disrupting a child's life by suddenly denying him support is unfair.

In its initial brief filed in the ``Anderson vs. Anderson'' case, then-Solicitor General Tom Warner argued that ``the child support obligation is for the benefit of the child'' and that once a man agrees to begin that obligation, only under extreme circumstances can he be allowed to stop.

The Supreme Court rarely grants rehearings. Michael Anderson's attorney, Tom Elligett, noted the narrow 4-3 margin as his best hope.

Anderson said he's heard from many other men in similar situations. He cut off all contact with the child he is financially supporting but has moved beyond anger.

``I feel a little disbelief that the system is saying it's OK to lie,'' he said.

Reporter Joe Follick can be reached at (850) 222-8382.