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Men wage battle on 'paternity fraud'

USA TODAY, by Martin Kasindorf, December 12, 2002

An acid sense of betrayal has been gnawing at Damon Adams since a DNA test showed that he is not the father of a 10-year-old girl born during his former marriage.

"Something changes in your heart," says Adams, 51, a dentist in Traverse City, Mich. "When she walks through the door, you're seeing the product of an affair."

But Michigan courts have spurned the DNA results Adams offered in his motions to stop paying $23,000 a year in child support. Now, Adams is lobbying the state Legislature for relief and joining other men in a national movement against what they call "paternity fraud."

In almost a dozen states, men have won the right to use conclusive genetic tests to end their financial obligations to children they didn't father. But women's groups and many public officials responsible for enforcing child support are battling the movement, which they say imperils children.

Most states design their family laws to protect what they call "the interests of the child." That means siding with the child's financial and emotional needs and against supposed fathers who want to avoid paying for tricycles and braces.

Taxpayers also have a big stake in child support collections, which have grown to$18 billion annually and cover 20 million children. If men who are paying child support no longer have to and authorities can't find the real fathers, welfare agencies will get the bill for family assistance.

Many men who feel deceived by a woman are in no mood to accept a legal system that doesn't recognize DNA science in such cases. "It's like they are saying, 'Let your wife cheat on you, have children by other men, divorce you, and now you have to pay for it all,' " says Air Force Master Sgt. Raymond Jackson, 43. California judges won't consider tests he says prove that the three children of his former 10-year marriage were fathered by other men.

Fraud, mistakes

There are signs of substantial fraud or mistakes in identifying fathers in child support disputes. The American Association of Blood Banks says the 300,626 paternity tests it conducted on men in 2000 ruled out nearly 30% as the father.

The legal doctrines raising barriers to DNA testing on paternity questions are formidable. In 30 states, married men face a 500-year-old legal presumption that any child born during a marriage is the husband's. The concept, based in English law, is aimed at preventing children from being branded illegitimate. Nebraska's Supreme Court ruled last week that an ex-husband who is not a child's father cannot sue the mother to recover child support payments.

The law is more flexible for men who admit to fathering a child out of wedlock but then change their minds or who are named by the mother. But they have only brief opportunities to deny paternity. Florida allows a year after a child support order, California two years after a birth.

Many unwed fathers paying child support have never admitted paternity. A 1996 federal welfare law requires a woman to name a father — no questions asked — when she applies for public assistance. A court summons can be mailed to the man's last known address. Many men don't get the notice. The result: The paychecks of 527,224 men in California, for example, are being docked under "default" judgments of paternity that can't be contested after six months.

Men who urge use of DNA cite a precedent: DNA's increasing impact in murder and rape cases.

"Think of it. I can get out of jail for murder based on DNA evidence, but I can't get out of child support payments," says Bert Riddick, 42, a computing teacher in Carson, Calif.

Riddick is paying $1,400 a month for a teenage girl born out of wedlock whom he's never met. Strapped, he and his wife are living with in-laws. Their three children, ages 3 to 11, cram into one room. He lost his driver's license for missing support payments and rides a bus 75 minutes to work.

Gradually, legislators are reshaping paternity law. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia now permit ex-husbands and out-of-wedlock fathers to end child support through DNA. Maryland has made the same change via court decisions.

Colorado, Illinois and Louisiana grant relief only to ex-husbands, allowing them to offer genetic proof. Texas allows ex-husbands four years from a birth to disprove paternity and gives unwed fathers unlimited time. A sweeping bill that would authorize married and unmarried fathers to offer DNA evidence is working its way through the New Jersey State Assembly.

Carnell Smith, 41, an engineer in Decatur, Ga., who was getting nowhere in challenging a support decree, started a group called U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud that lobbied for the law Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes signed in May. The slogan on the Web site of Smith's group ( "If the genes don't fit, you must acquit." Smith is back in court and says, "I fully intend to be one of the first people to be released."

Pending in Vermont is the toughest bill of all. It would make a mother's knowingly false allegation of fatherhood a felony that could put her behind bars for up to two years and fine her up to $5,000. "A woman almost always knows who the father is, and if she puts down the wrong person knowingly and it's costing him money, it's just plain fraud," says state Rep. Leo Valliere, a Republican, the bill's sponsor.

Men's rights groups aren't advancing everywhere. California Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill in September that was opposed by women's organizations. It would have given men two years after discovering they weren't the father to produce the DNA evidence to prove it. Florida paternity fraud bills died this year. A package of bills passed the Michigan House 102-0 but is stalled in the Senate.

'Dump the child'

Some analysts say laws need revising but DNA shouldn't be decisive. "Some people want to dump the child and say biology is all that matters, not relationships," says Jack Sampson, a law professor at the University of Texas-Austin. Carol Sanger, a family law professor at Columbia University in New York, says the law should be Read More ..nerous to men who may not even know a child than to dads who have been living with the kids they didn't father.

"Families are more complicated than who's biologically related to whom," says Valerie Ackerman, staff director for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland. "If there has been a relationship between a father and child, the man can't just abdicate the responsibility that he's taken on."

Supporters of current law say the interests of the child should trump a man's concern for his wallet. "The other guy is somewhere over the hill and long gone," says Jenny Skoble, an attorney at the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law in Los Angeles. "If it comes down to whether the only (available) father is going to be on the hook to pay money or this kid is going to be in the situation of having no father, I'd say we have to put the child first."

Men who want relief say it's a matter of equity. "DNA equals truth," says Patrick McCarthy, 41, a Hillsborough, N.J., package courier. After paying for 13 years to support a girl he denies fathering, McCarthy co-founded New Jersey Citizens Against Paternity Fraud. The group has put up nine billboards supporting the pending bill in New Jersey. The ads depict a pregnant woman and ask, "Is it yours? If not, you still have to pay!"

"Obviously, there's more to fatherhood than genes," McCarthy acknowledges. "However, to pay support on a non-biological offspring should be an individual choice, not ordered by the courts." Adams says he's willing to directly aid the child he'd thought was his but doesn't want to give his ex-wife any more cash.

Trouble could be minimized if all children were DNA-tested at birth or at the time of divorce, says Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. She says maternity wards should distribute pamphlets telling men, "Get tested now if you have any questions, because doing it later will disrupt this child's life."