Whose Baby? - Who's your Daddy?
The Australian Magazine - Saturday, 6th November 2004, By Greg Callaghan
Read More ..d Read More ..stralian fathers are using DNA tests to check the paternity of their children - and getting results they don't want Greg Callaghan examines the plight of men who receive the heartbreaking news that the children they have raised are not biologically theirs.
In the thick golden light of a country sunset, Nigel Brown sat hunched on his front doorstep, sobbing uncontrollably. Glancing back with bloodshot eyes at his four children, aged 6 to 13, running amok inside, he was hit by the sudden, somewhat surreal recognition that life as he had known it was over. "It was like a punch in the stomach, the shock of accepting my children weren't really mine at all."
A neighbour, worried by Brown's fragile emotional state, called his mother, who promptly picked up the children and dropped them home to his ex-wife, who lives on a property in the green, rolling hills outside this Victorian town. That was 18 months ago, and the handsome, slow-talking 36-year-old hasn't seen his kids since. His personal descent began the night three years ago when his wife of 12 years told him she'd met someone else and their marriage was over; but it was only after learning the truth about his children that the sense of betrayal began to gnaw at his soul. Doubts about his youngest, his only daughter ("she was conceived after I'd had a vasectomy, but my ex-wife blamed the doctor for stuffing up the operation"), had long niggled him. But it was his spirited mother, Linda, who, shortly after the marriage split, ordered a paternity testing kit through DNA Solutions in Melbourne.
Linda found it easier than brushing her infant grand-daughter's teeth. After receiving the kit in the mail, she took a swab of saliva from the little girl's mouth and packed it into a sterile envelope, along with one already collected from son Nigel. For good measure she added a lock of hair and a few nail clippings. Six weeks later, at a cost of $600, no questions asked, the results landed back in her letterbox, excluding Brown as the father.
That terrible thunderclap was followed by another, just six weeks later, when Linda, overwhelmed with foreboding, took samples from Brown's youngest son, George.
The torment of a second negative result drove Brown to order a DNA kit himself, this time to test his second-eldest boy, Tom. ("No worries, Dad," his son told him, handing him a few plucked hairs.) Fearing the worst from these results, Linda organised for the family doctor to open the envelope. Just as well: another heartbreaking negative.
Having got wind of the tests, Brown's ex-wife shaved all her sons' heads and sent a threatening note via her solicitor. Subsequent legal counter-threats from Brown's solicitor, however, convinced her to agree to a full round of paternity tests for all four children (the Family Court only recognises DNA tests undertaken with the consent of the mother, using blood samples analysed by an accredited laboratory). The result? Only Brown's eldest son was his.
"How could it have come to this?" he asks with a hollow laugh. "I don't understand how a mother could do this to her marriage, to her children. I feel heartbroken for all four of them."
It is, of course, a deceit that dupes not just one dad but two, and after one of Brown's best mates - named by his ex-wife as the possible father - was tested and ruled out, it's now believed the father is in fact a middle-aged businessman, with four children of his own, living in the same town. This man, if pursued through the courts, may now be liable to pay child support for the children Nigel Brown thought were his.
Every day in Australia, at least ten men will open their mail to find the potentially explosive results of a DNA paternity test. Between two and three will receive the unhappy news that they are not the biological father of their child. For the first time in human history, science is able to determine with almost foolproof accuracy (greater than 99.99 per cent) whether someone is the father of a child. While the blood tests of old could rule out paternity if a man had a different blood group from his offspring, they couldn't definitively confirm it even if the blood groups matched, always leaving room for doubt.
That doubt has plagued men for millennia, fuelling the classic literary themes of infidelity, sexual
jealousy, betrayal and revenge. From Shakespeare to the present, the man tricked ("cuckolded") into raising
another's child has been the butt of social ridicule. Evolutionary psychologists say the need for "paternity
certainty" has propelled men's historical drive to control female sexuality and so reduce the risk of
infidelity - from restricting their physical movement (foot-binding in China) to excising sexual desire
(circumcision in Africa) and reducing their erotic appeal to other males (the head-to-toe burqa of
fundamentalist Islam). It explains, they argue, the traditional male preference for virgin
Public morals campaigners, meanwhile, point to the soaring number of paternity tests - more than 5000 annually in Australia alone - as yet another indication of the breakdown of the traditional family into a melting pot of step-siblings and step-parents. But it's more likely that the DNA test's ability to pin down paternity has simply lifted the lid on the age-old problem of infidelity.
The American Association of Blood Banks estimates up to one in ten people in the US has a different
biological father to the one believed to the Australian Medical Association claims there are conservatively
200,000 families where "the presumptive father is not the biological father". In the past, when dad and kids
thought they knew who they were, cradle-to-grave family secrets could be concealed for generations. Not any
more.The biological certainty introduced by DNA testing is rewriting the laws on fatherhood. The Australian
Law Reform Commission recently proposed that DNA tests performed without the consent of the mother be
outlawed, and fathers like Nigel Brown who undertake them subject to criminal proceedings - a prospect that
enrages the men's rights lobby.
On November 29, the Victorian Supreme Court will consider an appeal against Melbourne man Liam Magill, who in the first case of paternity fraud in Australia was awarded $70,000 in 2002 after discovering he was the biological father of only one of his three children, having paid child support for seven years. The judge at the Victorian County Court found Magill's ex-wife had knowingly lied when filling out the birth certificates for her two youngest children, who were fathered by a family friend. The men's rights movement sees it as a landmark legal finding.
The Magill case raises a number of very 21st century questions. Should any man, rich or poor, be made financially responsible for a child found to be not biologically his? Should the courts hold mothers accountable when they make false statements regarding paternity? These inevitably lead to the deeper question of what defines a father - child-raising or genes?
Most would argue that being a father is more about behaviour than biology, something painfully exposed recently in the international custody battle between the two men who both believed they were the father of Manny Musu, the five-year-old girl critically injured in the Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta in September. Sydney police constable David Norman proved by DNA test he was Manny's biological father, even though her birth certificate named Italian security executive Manuel Musu, the man who had raised her. "She's my daughter, she lives in Italy, she speaks only Italian, she has Italian citizenship," Musu told reporters before jetting home to Verona with "his" child.
Manuel is Manny's father - in all ways except one. But for some men, the need for a paternal bloodline is so strong that they never fully come to terms with the news that they don't share their child's DNA.
Take Daniel White, a Melbourne cab driver who five years ago found out his then 11-year-old son Justin was the result of a one-night stand by his ex-partner. He'd long nursed nagging doubts - his tall, freckled,carrot-topped son bears little resemblance to this olive-skinned, shortish 43-year-old - but crippling child support payments and a TV advertisement for DNA Solutions spurred him to get the test, which excluded him as the father.
"It's ruined my life," says White. "It's now probably too late to have kids of my own." Of his now strapping 16-year-old son, he says quietly, passing a hand through his greying hair: "As much as you don't want it to, the feeling in your heart does change." So was the test a mistake? "No, I'd rather know the truth, and Justin deserves to know his real genetic origins."
It took the Child Support Agency a full seven months after the results of the DNA test to cease garnisheeing White's wages, he complains. "I still love the boy, but what I see whenever he comes through the door is my ex-wife's deception."
How to effectively describe the poignancy of White now calling his son the boy, not my boy? Some men, including Nigel Brown, are so distraught by the discovery their kids are not biologically theirs that they cease contact with them - for months, years, or even permanently. That's the truly sad part of the story, one that generally dampens sympathy for these men no matter how deep their paternal pain. Brown's mother, who still sees her grandchildren every week, describes how her grand-daughter clings to her, crying, asking where her daddy is. As Brown tells it, the children are better off not seeing him in his anguished and confused state, but after 18 months he's about to consult a psychologist in the hope of seeing his kids in the near future.
"It's okay to be hurt and angry with your ex-partner; it's not okay to cut off contact with your child," says Claire Button, a sociologist specialising in family violence who has given up trying to extract child support payments for her two-year-old son from her ex-boyfriend, even after a DNA test confirmed his paternity. She says some men, overwhelmed with anger toward their ex-partners, will use a negative DNA result as an excuse to resign from fatherhood, with devastating consequences for their children.
The ads on late-night TV target all doubting dads: get a DNA test for your peace of mind - don't risk being reduced to just a wallet or a sperm donor. They're ads you're unlikely to see much longer if the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) outlawing all paternity tests gained without maternal consent are adopted next year by the Howard Government.
No other prospect arouses a fiercer drumbeat from the men's rights movement or greater ire from the women's lobby. Speak to suspicious non-custodial fathers and they'll say a so-called "motherless" test is often the only way they can learn the truth, and that getting their day in court to force an ex-wife or partner to undergo a DNA test is difficult, time-consuming and costly. Speak to mothers and they'll say fathers often use paternity tests as a means to delay and thwart access to child-support payments, and as a way to punish or humiliate them by suggesting they might be promiscuous.
"It's not just a DNA test," fumes Anne Sergeant, a Brisbane single mother of three young children. "It's a year of child support appeals, tribunals, legal battles - all for what? So the father can keep being a non-father." Adds family counsellor Button: "Legal controls have to be introduced. You can't get the results of an AIDS test without counselling, and a paternity test involves the future wellbeing of children." But according to Gabriel Owen, a volunteer with the Family Rights Agency in Adelaide, "This argument that fathers only want free access to DNA tests to shirk their responsibilities makes me angry, because that's not what I see. They are just trying to settle the unease in their minds." Says Sue Price, co-founder of the Men's Rights Agency, Brisbane: "Most fathers desperately want it to be their child. After all, they've invested years of their lives in child-raising or paying child support, and they know that a negative result could mean being stripped of contact with their child."
A national survey in 2003 by the Australian Centre for Emerging Technologies and Society found that while 90 per cent of people support the idea of DNA testing on questions of child support, less than 50 per cent think it should be done without the mother's consent. Should a father's right to know prevail over a mother's right to privacy? No, says the man behind the ALRC's recommendations, Professor David Weisbrot. "How would you feel if your employer took your coffee cup and had a DNA test done without your knowledge? You'd be outraged, and this is no different."
Oh, but it is different, argues Vern Muir, CEO of DNA Solutions in Melbourne, one of a handful of laboratories in Australia that perform mail-order, unaccredited testing. "Men have the right to know. Outlaw it and you'll just create a black market, with people ordering tests from overseas via the Internet."
Men who have tried - and failed - to obtain an order for a DNA test from the Family Court are in no mood to accept further legal logjams. "I was dumb enough to do the honest thing and go through the Family Court," says Chris Lawrence, a 43-year-old from Perth with two young children, the second one of whom he suspects is biologically not his. "Demonstrating to the court why you couldn't be the child's father after 12 years of marriage is hellishly difficult, especially if your ex-wife happens to be a Baptist, has remarried, and doesn't want to expose past infidelities or be charged with paternity fraud," he complains. "I don't love my daughter any less for her not being my biological child, but I have a right to know."
Ask Diana Bryant, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, whether she believes the courts are fair on men who want to confirm or deny their paternity and she answers with an emphatic "yes". But the statistics paint a different picture: of the more than 5000 DNA paternity tests that passed through Australian labs last year (two-thirds of them initiated by men), only 221 were ordered through the Family Court.
Somewhere in the middle of the tug-of-war between duped dads and angry mothers is Michael Gilding, director of the Australian Centre for Emerging Technologies at Melbourne's Swinburne University, who is undertaking a large survey into the topic. "These tests aren't trivial," he says, "and the potentially explosive results could tip a man, already under tremendous stress, over the edge." Sufficient reason, then, for a mother to be notified about the tests. "On the one hand, fathers and children have a right to know, and a mother shouldn't be able to veto that." Gilding thus draws a distinction between knowledge and consent, suggesting a mandatory system where a father submits the mother's contact details as part of the paperwork for the test and agrees to counselling if the results prove negative.
A plausible compromise, perhaps, but the ALRC's David Weisbrot is steadfast. DNA taken without lawful consent for any reason should be a criminal offence, he says, and paternity tests are no exception. "I am sympathetic to men who have never had a parental relationship, have been denied access to their children and are only providing monetary support, but it's up to them to obtain a court order."
That's easy for him to say, counters Gary Arnold, a 40-year-old hospitality student from Sydney who
found out his ex-wife was having an affair around the time of conception of his second child. "In
other words, let your wife cheat on you, have children by other men, divorce you and make you
pay for it all, but you've got to prove to the court good reason to get a DNA test without her
permission." When one in four men taking these tests finds he isn't the biological father of the
child, Arnold fumes, "Where's the f..king justice in that?"
The law gets even thornier for those who are the biological fathers but whose sperm was used without their consent. In the famous "turkey baster" case in the US in the early'90s, a woman seduced a friend by giving him oral sex, pretended to swallow his sperm but spat it into a jar and used a turkey baster to inject the seminal fluid directly into her vagina.
Although duped into paternity, the man was forced to pay child support by a Californian court. A similar fate befell tennis legend Boris Becker, who admitted he had oral sex - but not intercourse - with Russian model Angela Ermakowa in a linen cupboard in 1999. She later gave birth to his daughter. As far-fetched as these scenarios sound, an Australian court faced a similar case earlier this year after a man on a motorcycle tour of western NSW claimed a woman had seduced him, darted off to the bathroom with his condom and a syringe, and impregnated herself. The courts didn't accept his story - even with the testimony of a male witness.
Unorthodox as they are, such cases are now being taken up as weapons in the battle over men's legal rights. "Men can be tricked into becoming fathers," says Sue Price. "And proving it is very difficult." The law, she insists, has not caught up with the laboratory, and still harks back to the paternity controls put in place in the 19th century to protect children from being falsely labelled illegitimate.
Under current law, signing a birth certificate as a "father", accepting paternity in a child support affidavit, or marrying a woman to whom you have been paying child support provide a firm "presumption of legitimacy" that even direct DNA evidence might not be able to challenge. Men who impregnate women through having sex with them but don't intend to be fathers are still treated as such by the law, which requires them to pay child support. Men who donate their sperm are exempt, legally and socially, but men whose sperm is "stolen" languish in a legal limbo where they have to prove, Bill Clinton-style, that no, they did not have sex with that woman.
Save the Males"; "Say No to Female chauvinism"; "Paternity fraud: don't support a lie" ... You can see the born-again, testosterone-fuelled slogans on T-shirts, fridge magnets and bumper stickers, all available at a host of American Web sites, including www.paternityfraud.com, where the science of DNA testing is fuelling an angry new men's movement.
All rail against a system that forces men to pay for the upkeep of children they might not have fathered, or that otherwise penalises men who are barred from seeking a DNA test to answer the question burning deepest inside them. One site quotes a US survey suggesting that up to 30 per cent of unwed mothers who sign affidavits of paternity name the wrong man as the father - though it doesn't specify how many knowingly do this. While pitying the plight of the fathers so deceived, one wonders how much of their rage stems from naked revenge toward ex-partners rather than genuine concern for the children. All too often the arguments of the men's rights lobby turn into finger-wagging exercises against single or abandoned mothers struggling to raise children alone. Or worse, the easy moral superiority of judging unfaithful women, whom society continues to view far more harshly than the male equivalent.
The bloodymindedness of some men is staggering. While preparing this article I interviewed a former IT consultant earning more than $60,000 a year who paid $100 a week in child support for his eight-year-old daughter.
Though his paternity had been confirmed by a DNA test, he complained that his ex-wife's new partner was rich enough to pay for the upbringing of their child himself. Another father, outraged by his ex-wife's unfaithfulness, admitted he had enjoyed a few flings himself during the marriage, blithely unaware of his barefaced hypocrisy.
As a growing number of Australian men cry fraud, taxpayers hold an increasing stake in child support collections - now increasing by $3 million each year. If just a fraction of the 400,000-odd fathers paying child support discover they are not the biological fathers of their kids and the authorities can't track them down, social welfare agencies will have to foot the rising bill for family assistance. This could run into the hundreds of millions and the Child Support Agency, already buckling under the strain of tracing wayward fathers, would be confronted with a minefield of new challenges.
Not least of these is the absence of children's voices in the debate, which is why, in weighing the rights of an innocent child against those of an innocent man, the Family Court almost invariably rules in favour of the former. This is a bitter pill for the men's rights lobby. "How is it in the best interests of the child that the wrong father pays child support? asks Price. Complains William O'Brien, a 48-year-old who is paying $900 a month for a 14-year-old son he discovered in 2001 is not biologically his: "I can get off a murder charge because of DNA evidence, but I can't get out of child support."
Indeed, the mother who knowingly lies about paternity surely deserves as much disapproval as fathers who abandon their children. One simple solution, suggests Price, may be to introduce DNA testing for all newborns in conjunction with the Guthrie blood test that has been standard for the past 20 years. "Why shouldn't all newborns have their DNA matched and recorded at the same time?"
Although such testing could save a lot of heartbreak in the longer term, it's highly unlikely ever to be passed into law, given its Brave New World overtones. In any case, neither codes of practice nor legal regulations are going to end the traumas caused by paternity testing. Like it or not, the genetic genie is out of the bottle and the fallout on many families is likely to be immense.
"Blokes like me are supposed to be tough and not cry, but we suffer in silence ... " says Nigel Brown, his voice trailing off. And while he suffers, those four children of his are still without their Dad. J For privacy reasons, names of aggrieved fathers, their partners and children mostly have been changed.
* The Australian Medical Association says that in at least 200,000 families "the presumptive father is not the biological father".
* In the US, it is estimated that this is the case for up to one in ten people.
* In Australia, about one in four men taking paternity tests discovers he is not the father of his children.
* According to a US survey, up to 30 per cent of unwed mothers who sign affidavits of paternity name the wrong man as the father.