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Who's your daddy? 

Paternity fraud foes make their pitch for reform

An ancient Chinese parable recounts the tale of Hakuin, a Zen master who was presented with a child by a young village woman who claimed he was the father. "Is that so?" replied Hakuin who, saying no more, took the infant and cared for it. One year later, the child's mother confessed that the father was, in fact, a young fisherman. When her abashed parents went to Hakuin's house to reclaim the child and apologize, the monk's response was, again, "Is that so?"

Zen tales are wont to conclude with, "and he (or she) was enlightened."

A bit of high-tech enlightenment for an age-old dilemma was on the minds of those at a hearing last week on legislation targeting "paternity fraud." The hearing offered several local men -- and women -- the opportunity to rail against a system which frequently forces men to pay for the upkeep of children they may not have fathered, and whom are often barred from even seeking a DNA test to answer that very question.

"The judge refused to allow me to have DNA testing done at all," says Buddy Everhart, a software consultant who currently pays $2,500 in monthly child-support for five children. "Even though my ex-wife and her boyfriend admitted on the stand that two of those children may not be mine, the court said, 'You will pay.' "

The issue is even thornier for men who think they've fathered out-of-wedlock children and agree to pay support, only to find out later that another man is actually the father. Carnell Smith, director of Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, says some women actively decide whom to name as father on the basis of income.

"So then," says Smith, "the question becomes, 'How did [she] pick me?' " Such a deception, says Smith, "is the very definition of fraud."

Earlier this year, Rep. Stan Watson, D-Decatur, sponsored a bill that would allow presumed fathers to seek legal permission to conduct DNA testing to determine actual paternity. Under the bill, if such tests proved that someone else fathered the child, the presumed father would be able to stop paying further support, and might also be let of the hook for lapsed or unpaid support. (Watson's bill does not include provisions forcing restitution of previously paid support, but he does plan to introduce companion legislation mandating penalties for women who knowingly misidentify their children's fathers.)

It would also remove the courtroom stumbling block that Everhart tripped over; under current law, any of several actions -- signing a birth certificate as the "father," acknowledging paternity in child-support affidavit, marrying a woman to whom one has been paying child support, and so forth -- provide a "strong presumption of legitimacy" that even direct evidence may not overturn.

The number of people affected by paternity fraud is potentially enormous. CAPF's Smith points to figures provided by a company that performs DNA screening for the Georgia Child Support Enforcement Administration showing that, of 9,650 paternity screenings performed last year, 2,919 men -- 30.2 percent -- had been erroneously identified as the father.

"We use DNA to convict or free criminal suspects all the time," he says. "Why not free these men from paying for children that aren't theirs?"

The Georgia Department of Human Resources, which oversees child-support enforcement efforts, seems to agree. DHR Deputy Director Robert Swain says studies confirm that, of the 35,000-to-40,000 unwed Georgia mothers who fill out affidavits of paternity each year do, about 30 percent name the wrong man as father.

Swain sees Watson's bill as a potential tool in helping ensure that children are properly supported.

"The bill, although not perfect, is not one we'll complain about," says Swain.

Even so, while the legislation easily passed the House, its progress halted when it got to the Senate. There, Sen. Charles Tanksley, R-Marietta, chairman of the Special Judiciary Committee, found himself troubled by a couple of points.

"My concern was that it virtually did away with any kind of closure on this sort of issue. ... It allowed a challenge at any time, regardless of whatever other agreements might have taken place prior to that. The bill that the House sent over had no limitation period at all."

Tanksley notes that Texas, for instance, has a statute which allows one year for a challenge to a paternity claim.

Under the Watson bill, Tankley says, "one could decide -- for any number of reasons, many years later -- to go back and retroactively undo whatever had been done in the past, whether in good faith or bad faith."

He also thinks the law should include provisions for men who may have knowingly shouldered a parental responsibility in the past, but later decide to rescind that commitment.

A decision by Massachusetts' Supreme Court last week illustrates just how such limitations may impact future paternity suits. When a man had his 5-year-old daughter DNA tested and found that he was not the father, a lower court said he could stop making payments. But the state's high court reversed, ruling that he'd waited too long to challenge paternity.

Tanksley has appointed a subcommittee to study and recommend some changes to the legislation, but Watson is adamantly opposed to any further limitation.

"Under state law, we have to take care of a child until the child is 18; [Tanksley] wants to go in and put a limitation on the time that can pass before you can go in and get a DNA test. That's not fair."

For Vickie McLennan, a lobbyist for several Georgia affiliates of the National Organization for Women, paternity fraud is an important issue but, she says, Watson's bill needs to be carefully studied.

"I understand how somebody who might've gotten stuck with support [payments] by some girl who slept with three guys a night then said, 'Oh, this one's making good money. I'll make him the daddy,' would be angry, and would want action taken. I would," she says. "But this is an elephant gun to deal with a very narrow issue. It does need to have a deliberative process."

Maybe so. But the folks who cheered Smith's description of current law as "involuntary servitude" that tosses men into "debtor's prison" begrudge every day they're asked to wait.

In fact, the only light note during last week's hearing was struck when Rep. Henrietta Turnquest, D-Decatur, popped in to express her support. As she left, she wagged a finger at the assemblage.

"You single men out there, you know what you need to do," she said. "You do right, now."

And the mood -- for a moment -- was enlightened.

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