Friday, July 17, 2009

When they 'kid' you, it's no joke.

I remain astonished by these types of stories, though regrettably they're far from rare. Before we go any further, I should reiterate that this is sensitive terrain for me, as my family has experienced paternity fraud firsthand. From the moment my wife and I found out about Jessica's pregnancy till the moment three years later when DNA tests broke our hearts by eliminating our son as the bio-father, that child was the dominant emotional theme in our lives; the episode would grow even more tragic and emotionally complex after Jessica took her own life. I look back on that entire period and even years later, with the benefit of hindsight, I don't know how to feel about any of it. I've tried to write about it a number of times in hopes of exorcising the demons. Nothing works. Pictures of little Sophia (and Jessica as well) still hang on the wall of my basement office. To this day I can't look at them without a lump forming in my throat.

Which is why this is one case where I step well outside any pretense of objectivity in asking, Why aren't all right-thinking people horrified and offended by paternity fraud and its crushing impact on the life of the man who's defrauded? I don't understand what the counterargument could possibly be. I do know what the bureaucratic argument is: "Society's primary focus is on what's best for the kids. DNA or no DNA, if we allow the duped dads to wriggle off the hook for paying child support, then who will take care of these innocent children?" Largely for such reasons, there is a legal presumption of husbandly paternity (with all the attendant financial obligations) that applies to any children born during a marriage, even when it's clear that those children might have been the product of Mom's adultery. Put simply, if Dave is married to Dawn, and Dawn conceives as a result of an affair with Dick, it doesn't matter as far as the family courts are concerned. It doesn't even matter what the DNA tests show. The child is "Dave's." And in most cases Dave will be obliged to pay for that child's upkeep till he or she turns at least 18.

To which I would ask, Why is it assumed that it's the father's sole obligation to maintain a stable life for the unfortunate offspring of such messy situations? Maybe the mother should have thought of that before she got pregnant with another man's baby and deceived her current partner into thinking the child was his. This appears to be one of those settings where all the talk about gender equality is revealed for the sham (as it were) it too often is. "Equality under the law" means nothing if it doesn't also mean "equal responsibility under the law."

Some of the horror stories in this area defy belief. After Air Force Master Sgt. Ray Jackson's wife divorced him, Jackson learned that all three children born during their marriage were the product of extramarital affairs
—which is to say, three different ones. Nonetheless, Jackson ended up paying half his income to support the three kids. Bert Riddick of Los Angeles was thrown into a 13-year downward spiral of debt, culminating in a period of homelessness, by a former girlfriend who falsely accused him of fathering her baby. Suffering right along with Bert were his wife and three actual children. You may want to read about Ben Ridley, too, as the article includes some interesting stats.

In fact, if you research this subject to any depth, you'll even find cases where women cheated on their husbands, conceived a child with the other man, eventually left the husband in order to live with the other man (or yet a third man), then collected both child support and alimony from the ex-husband! So in effect, the duped dad was paying the upkeep not only on the child he didn't father, but on the entire new relationship the woman had forged with the real sperm donor.

If that's not a perversion of the system...I don't know what is.


Noadi said...

The question I always ask in these matters is: Does the man want to sever any and all contact with the children forever? Or does he want to be part of their lives because he has an emotional relationship to them?

If the answer is that he is emotionally the children's father and wants contact with them then I don't give a shit what the DNA is. Fatherhood is not about money or DNA it is about who cares for the children. Of course it's wrong for someone to be deceived about being the father of a child who isn't his but the consequences of that should fall squarely on the woman and not the children. They shouldn't lose the father they know and have bonded to because someone lied.

Now my perspective is maybe different than most people as my mom was raised in foster care, I view her foster family as my family (actually I don't really view her biological parents as family, I had no relationship with them or wanted one). She's now the guardian for two of her mentally handicapped foster-siblings. On my dad's side of the family there has been a lot of adoption. Genetics just doesn't mean much to me and I have trouble fathoming why so many people get wrapped up in it being so much more important.

Steve Salerno said...

Noadi: I could not agree more. One of the great tragedies of my own life, for instance, is that I'm unable to remain in touch with little Sophia. For two years I was probably the main emotional constant in her life--perhaps more than her own mother--and today I don't even know where she's living. (In fact, there was a short period after I learned of Jessica's suicide when I didn't even know if she was living; young mothers sometimes take their kids "with them," when they decide to end it all.) I also think that my son was an excellent father to Sophia, biology notwithstanding. I am not technically the father of my two older children, either, yet they are as much my kids as my lone biological son.

However, all of that, to me, is a very different circumstances from being forced to pay child support in some of the situations I'm describing here. There are any number of cases in the literature where women sleep with a number of men around the same time, get pregnant, then simply name the guy with the best financial prospects as "Daddy." And in many states, the time allowed for contesting such an action is as little as 30 days--whether or not you can prove you were ever formally notified of the birth! Thus, for many men in this category, as one of the fathers of the men's rights movement puts it, "The birth announcement arrives in the form of a summons." This practice even has a name, of sorts; it's called father-shopping. And I hope you consider it as repugnant as I do.

Athol Kay said...

It's a huge ugly issue. Part of me thinks that DNA paternity testing should just be routine on newborns to deal with this up front. Part of me thinks that would blow apart families that would otherwise survive.

I think the best advice to young men is to state up front before marriage that they will require paternity testing for all the children.

That and only have sex with partners they feel comfortable raising kids with should the dice roll that way.

Anonymous said...

This is incredible. I had no idea this happened as often as it does. I was reading that one Army study where they randomly tested GI families and 30% had kids that weren't theirs. I can't even get my head around that, what is going on?

Kasey said...

These stories are heartbreaking.

Requiring the named father to take responsibility for the child without giving him any rights over the child he cared for and provided for just feels wrong.

When a man is named as the father of a child he should get rights along with responsibilities. Blood isn't everything and courts should decide what's best for the child based on who cares for the child, both financially and emotionally.

However, if a man is tricked and wishes to walk away, he should have that right, too.

And the children are just pawns in this game.

Steve Salerno said...

Kasey: Yes, your last line is the kicker in this story. It would be easy to take a cold-hearted approach here...except it's true that innocent children often wind up bearing the brunt of it.

One problem we have is that despite all of the recent improvements in tracing/tracking technology, our society remains behind the curve in forcing missing bio-dads to face the music. If men were more responsible about their sex lives, and didn't simply (in too many cases) disappear when they learn that a woman is pregnant, then we wouldn't have to worry so much about the kids. But as it stands now, letting a duped dad off the hook--as a practical matter--often means forcing the mother and child into a substandard lifestyle, if not welfare. And that's not really the outcome we want, either. If the duped dad doesn't have to pay, then the real dad certainly should have to.

However, that still doesn't justify the basic deceit and manipulation that's at the core of so many of these cases. If a man is not the bio-father, he deserves to know it. Period. Then he can make a decision about his level of involvement in the child's life from then on.

Chad Hogg said...

The fraud is terrible, but let's look at this from a slightly different angle. Supposing that a woman with multiple sexual partners conceives, why should the one partner who got [un]lucky depending on your perspective have full responsibility for their actions while the others, who took the same risks, have no responsibility? I cannot imagine a realistic social situation in which all the partners of a woman shared in fathership of her children, but this would seem more equitable. (I suppose there should be an analogous clause for the multiple female partners of a man sharing the responsibilities of motherhood when one has a child, but that seems even less likely.) Or maybe, you know, people could be monogamous.

Steve Salerno said...

Chadd: It's an intriguing perspective, but again, my primary focus here is on women who engage in sex with multiple partners when they're supposedly in a monogamous relationship, fail to disclose that fact, then stick their (supposed) mate with the tab. Take the situation in my family, e.g. People have said to me, "I feel for you, Steve, but give Jessica [the woman at the heart of the story] the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she really did think that your son was the father." OK, let's give her the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, didn't she owe it to us to tell us at the outset that there were other players in the lineup, so to speak? Instead she left it unsaid, then brought it up in the middle of a family court action three years later, after we'd invested all that time, energy and love, and my son's life in particular had been turned upside down.

Anonymous said...

What does this topic have to do with feminism, as your tag suggests?

Anonymous said...

A tad off-topic but how about this story from Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs as a sham scam worth looking into?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 4:20: Feminist groups and less politicized women's orgs as well have fought tooth-and-nail to block or soften all relevant legislation in this area. For example, a bill that would have required all children to be DNA-tested at birth, or at least given fathers the right to demand such testing, was repeatedly opposed by NOW. Also, to the extent that the topic of paternity fraud has been covered in media--which isn't very much--it has been covered from a very female-friendly perspective, no doubt out of fears of offending (a) women's groups, who are a powerful lobbying interest and/or (b) female reporters and producers themselves. This sort of of reporting lens is common in America's ultra-PC MSM.

Anonymous said...

Chad, I can see where you're coming from but the owner of the sperm race has his DNA continued in the next generation (which I suppose is at the ver least one of the main points of our existence. So forcing him to make a small contribution to his offspring once his cuckolding has been exposed is hardly against his human rights.

Gentlemen, its not rocket science, if you don't want to be (un)lucky - wear a condom!

Noadi, although the nature vs nurture debate is nowhere near solved, there is no doubt that a person is 50% their father. I have read countless current blogs and stories from adopted and donor assisted test tube babies that are wondering around with huge holes in them because they have no idea who their parents are as records are sealed or mothers have no clue.

Steve, there is no doubt I am my father's child - its physically clear. Could you see your son in Sophia?


Steve Salerno said...

Londoner: Your closing question really picks at one of the great mysteries here (as well as a still-too-sensitive scab). But to answer you: Yes, I thought I could see my son in little Sophia. At the time of her birth. Though I must admit we were all greatly puzzled by the fact that she was the first "baldy" in the family among all the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. (Our babies tend to be born with ludicrous amounts of hair.) Only later--after we got the DNA results--did we look at those early photos of Sophia and wonder why it wasn't "obvious" that she bore no resemblance to our son.

OTOH, I think it's a grave mistake to propose that genetic linkage always produces physical resemblance. If that's the standard we're going to use, then there are an awful lot of kids running around who couldn't possibly have been born of their mothers, either, let alone their fathers...

Steve Salerno said...

I have to add, though, that I still think we're talking around the edges of this issue a little bit. Do we at least agree that a woman is obliged to disclose all of the various swimmers in the race, as it were, when she announces that she's pregnant?

Anonymous said...

I think the judicial bias is more acceptable if we remember that judges are now expected to put the needs of the child first.

Yes, it must be very painful for an adult to discover that he was duped, but he is an adult and has the resources to cope with being duped once or twice in life, betrayal being the fact of life that it is for us all.

A child on the other hand is utterly dependent on others to make it through childhood, which is why the current judicial bias holds that the welfare of the child trumps the hurt feelings of the aggrieved putative parent.

Hardly fair, but then who said life was fair?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 9:37, but here's what bothers me about your very pragmatic, "compassionate" position, which assigns the highest priority to the welfare of the child: Why is the unfairness heaped solely on the dad? So to your way of thinking, the man has to pay up, the child's well-being is assured...and the woman just skates?

This is why, in the post itself, I ask: "Why is it assumed that it's the father's sole obligation to maintain a stable life for the unfortunate offspring of such messy situations?" If we're out to assure the welfare of the child, why can't we do it, at least in part, by attaching all of the mother's earnings, savings, and other potential income, in cases where paternity fraud can be proved? And if we're going to make the dad pay up (since presumably he has higher earning power), then can't we at least consider criminalizing this offense, so that the woman doesn't just get off the hook and go on her merry way? This is what bothers me about blithe, shrugging attitudes like, "Well, life isn't fair..." Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea what my son and my family went through as a result of that whole experience? To dismiss all of that with a sweeping statement like "life isn't fair"--as if we were talking about a situation where, let's say, a coach plays favorites on a Little League team or a boss treats one employee a little bit nicer than he treats the others--doesn't quite cut it, in my book.

If a woman shoplifts a package of hair ribbons from Target, she could be forced to face criminal penalties. But if she brings a child into the world, deceives a well-meaning young man about that child's origins, takes tens of thousands of dollars from him (and/or his family) in direct support monies, lets him grow totally attached to that child...and then, when it's convenient for her, just waltzes off into the sunset to start anew with some other guy, denying visitation rights to the first patsy but still expecting him to pay support funds...that's just a case of "life is unfair," in your book?

That doesn't strike you as at least as bad as shoplifting?

Anonymous said...

Women have under their:
Hormonal Birth Control
The Morning After Pill

Men have:

And yet some how it's always painted as the mans responsibility when a women has a kid.