Paternity Fraud-Fatherhood, Child Support, and DNA

It is a fact of biology that while it is relatively difficult for a woman to mistakenly believe that a child is hers, such errors aren’t too difficult for men. A man has to trust that the woman he is with is bearing his child when that is what she tells him; unfortunately, not all women are entirely trustworthy, and those who are can honestly identify the wrong man as the father of her children. What happens then?

In the past, nothing could be done because proving paternity was impossible. You could make guesses based upon whom the child most looked like, but in reality the only proof of paternity was being married to the mother when she gave birth – thus giving rise to the common law principle that the father of a child was the man married to the mother.

Today things have changed because paternity can be proven or disproven conclusively with DNA tests. A man can be absolutely sure if a child is his or not – and it’s not a trivial matter. Lest anyone think that there is nothing but misogynistic bigotry behind the concern over accurate claims of paternity, a 1999 study by the American Association of Blood Banks discovered that in 30 percent of 280,000 blood tests performed to determine paternity, the man tested was not actually the biological father of his children.

This has begun to raise to some very difficult ethical issues, not the least of which is the growing movement of men who are fighting what they call “Paternity Fraud.” In an unfortunate number of cases, men have paid years of child support only to find out later that the children they thought were theirs were in fact fathered by another man when their wives (or girlfriends) were unfaithful.

According to some, this constitutes fraud – at least when the claims of paternity were known to be false or were at least known to be doubtful. Fraud is a criminal act done to secure unfair gain; in most cases when fraud is discovered, the victims of fraud are compensated and they stop paying – but that is not what happens in these paternity cases.

Most of the time the men involved have absolutely no recourse whatsoever. At best, the law provides a narrow window of opportunity to challenge paternity, but that window closes after a few months or a couple of years. This is a time when a relationship (often a marriage) is either still strong or, if rocky, the couple is trying to make things work – to bring a paternity challenge is to allege a serious breach of trust and honesty at a time when it would do the most damage. As a result, few can be expected to make use of this window.

The problem here is a very fundamental question of fairness. No matter what happens, someone is going to lose. On the one hand, it certainly isn’t fair for a man to be forced to pay child support for a child who isn’t his. If a DNA test can be used to establish paternity and force a man to make such payments, why can’t it be used in the reverse?

On the other hand, it would certainly be a serious loss for the child if such payments are allowed to stop. Child support payments can be crucial when it comes to the health, education, and welfare of a child. That, however, is a poor argument – yes, the child may need financial help, but that doesn’t mean that the help must come from a man who isn’t the child’s father. If the aid is so important, why not track down the actual father and make him pay? We don’t grab random men off the street and force them to make child support payments for kids that aren’t theirs merely because the aid is important.

Another argument commonly offered is that the cessation of such payments will interrupt the parent-child bond which is so important in the emotional and psychological development of a child. Once again, that is true – but it is also often irrelevant because in many cases the fathers have little or no bond with the children or have had no bond for many years. It is unfortunate that they have not been making an effort to be fathers to the children they thought were theirs, but that’s another ethical question entirely – in this matter, it is clear that where no bonds exist, the termination of financial support can’t create a new separation.

For that very reason, it really doesn’t work to try and claim that such men should just step forward and be an active father for a change. If for whatever reason they found themselves unable or unwilling to do so before, that’s even less likely to happen now that they know they aren’t really the biological father of these children. Then there is the emotional and psychological toll on a person who has just found out that he has been lied to for years but has absolutely no legal recourse. The emotional and psychological resources necessary for “being a dad” can’t be turned off and on at will. Some people aren’t cut out for it and some situations conspire to prevent it.

There is no doubt that child support payments are important and that their loss will harm the child. The source of this injustice does not appear to lie with the men, however. It’s not necessary to stray into a convoluted discussion about who bears the blame for the dissolution of a relationship – even if the man bears most of the responsibility, it is still the responsibility of the woman to be honest about whose children she is bearing and/or any doubts she might have about their paternity.

Honesty at the beginning would go a long way towards eliminating this problem completely. Unfortunately, we do have this problem now and we have to deal with it now – we can’t go back and change the past, although measures to keep this from happening as often in the future might be a good idea.

State governments have begun, slowly, to respond to this issue.
Georgia passed a law in 2002 that allows courts to terminate child-support obligations of men who can prove they are not the fathers.
Maryland allows an unlimited time period for challenging paternity, while the legislatures of other states have considered similar measures.

Is fatherhood just a matter of biology? Of course not – when a man has filled the social, emotional, and psychological role of a father for a child for some period of time, then for all intents and purposes he is the father and child support payments can be fairly demanded (but does that exclude any obligation from the biological father? Another interesting question…). If, however, he has done little more than fill the financial role of father by sending in such payments, then proof that he isn’t the biological father should be sufficient grounds to end those payments. Fatherhood may be more than just a matter of biology, but it’s also more than a matter of a monthly check as well.

From Austin Cline



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