Pop quiz: Paternity test a pass-or-fail proof of fatherhood
Even when the genetic issue is settled, legal, moral and humane questions remain.
Mireya Navarro, the New York Times, October 23, 2005
Joseph Dixon said he was not exactly thrilled when his girlfriend of 1 1/2 years told him she was pregnant. But, Dixon says, he did not want her to have an abortion and was determined to do the right thing.
''I told her I'd definitely be there'' for her, says Dixon, 29, a hotel doorman in Chicago. And he was. The two didn't marry but settled into the common rhythm of separate but shared parenthood, he says, allowing him to see his daughter whenever he wanted.
But when Dixon arranged to buy a life-insurance policy to give his 4-year-old daughter financial security last January, the results of a required DNA test delivered stunning news.
''The probability of paternity is 0 percent,'' the results read. He was not the girl's biological father.
Like an increasing number of men, Dixon found his life spun around as the result of a paternity test. There was shock, then deep hurt and finally a realization. ''I never had any idea she'd been cheating," Dixon says of his ex-girlfriend. ''We knew each other, at least I thought."
With costs of paternity testing down -- to $500 or less per test from nearly $1,000 just 10 years ago -- and with the testing so simple it can be done at home (a swab from inside the cheeks does the job), DNA testing has become more common to settle legal disputes and questions about identity.
A survey by the American Association of Blood Banks showed that more than 354,000 tests to establish parentage were performed in 2003, compared with about 149,100 in 1995.
Caroline Caskey, chief executive officer of Identigene, a DNA testing company in Houston that has advertised its services in magazines and on billboards, says that in about 30 percent of the paternity tests, the presumed father turns out not to be the biological father, and that is consistent throughout the industry.
Results can be disturbing
Although the tests ostensibly offer clarity, those who are left to wrestle with the results find themselves in unchartered emotional terrain from the moment the question of a test is raised, lawyers who specialize in family law say.
Some men are like Dixon and say they had no reason to doubt the women. But other men are reluctant to take a DNA test even when they are in the middle of legal battles over children and their lawyer suggests they confirm paternity as a first step. Some even flat-out refuse.
''It's a cultural taboo in this country,'' says Jeffery M. Leving, a lawyer and fathers' rights advocate in Chicago. ''It's very unmanly to request a DNA test to determine that your child is your biological child. It's emasculating and many men would not do it.''
In any case where paternity is in dispute, the issues can be so jarring some of the men interviewed for this article had trouble speaking or broke into tears when recounting their experience.
Dr. Enrique Terrazas, 39, a clinical pathologist from California, says his ex-wife eventually told him that one of his two children was not his child. His second wife had urged him to do the test because of a lack of resemblance between father and child. In his view, what kind of person would have asked his own wife for a DNA test?
Terrazas cries on the telephone as he recounts the fallout. Because of the resulting dispute over child-support payments, he says, he no longer sees the child regularly. His ex-wife's current husband is adopting the child.
He says his relationship with the child ''has been destroyed."
It is the fallout faced by the children, most child advocates and lawyers say, that is most traumatic. And the men who seek to halt child-support payments -- an act many of them say is an attempt to right a wrong, rather than to abandon the children they still care about -- are surprised to learn they still are required by many courts to continue payments because it is deemed in the best interest of the child, especially if the man is the only father that child has ever known.
Some men have organized groups such as the United States Citizens Against Paternity Fraud (paternityfraud.com) to call for mandatory DNA testing at the time of birth and laws that exempt men from child support if they are proved not to be the biological fathers.
Take the test
To prevent grief down the line, Leving says, he recommends that his clients get a DNA test if they have a child out of wedlock. Other lawyers say men should think about the test even within a marriage if there's suspicion of an affair.
''I think the real bottom line is that for a few hundred dollars you can buy peace of mind that the child is yours,'' says Randall M. Kessler, a family-law lawyer in Atlanta. Lawyers such as Leving say clients often request the test when they are being denied visitation rights and become suspicious of the reasons.
In a recent case to make headlines, Amber Frey, the "other woman" in the Scott Peterson case, went to court to set aside the paternity judgment against the man who was paying child support for her 4-year-old daughter. She attached the results of a DNA test that showed the girl's father was actually someone else.
Gloria Allred, the lawyer for Frey, says her client had believed ''in good faith" that the man paying child support was the girl's father and argued that although women obviously have the responsibility to establish who the father is, so do men.
But Glenn Wilson, who represents Anthony Flores, the child's presumed father, counters that unlike his client, ''she knew who she had sex with.''
Dixon says he was floored when he got the DNA test results, but that he was not angry at his girlfriend.
''I was just really hurt,'' he says. ''That was four years you're getting attached, a long time to put your heart into somebody.''
He says he insisted on both of them telling the girl right away.
''I told her that I still loved her, but that I didn't want her to grow up with a lie,'' he says. ''She was shocked. Her first question was who's my dad and where is he? I kind of left it up to her mom to tell her."
The mother refused a request for an interview through Dixon. As it turned out, Dixon says, the biological father is not in the picture, and ''I was lucky enough that the relationship between me and the mother remained civilized."
Dixon, who also has a son from an earlier relationship, and the girl have gone back to their old routine. He regularly picks her up after school and delivers her back to her mother before heading to work at the hotel, he says.
Little has changed, except that he now calls her ''goddaughter" and she calls him ''goddaddy.''
Most of the time, anyway.
''Sometimes,'' he says, ''she still calls me dad."
Copyright 2005, Orlando Sentinel