What makes a father?

May 01, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- If he were in jail for mass murder, he would have been sprung by now. After all, the DNA evidence proved that he was the wrong man.

So how come a man who has been proven scientifically not to be the biological father must go on paying child support? How come the same DNA test that can force one man into paternal obligation can't automatically free another?

Last week, a Massachusetts man joined a fraternity that now has members as far flung as Florida and Texas, Georgia and Ohio. They are known in the media lingo as duped dads.

These are men who discovered that the children they believed were their biological offspring were not. And then they discovered that in some courts, DNA is not necessarily destiny.

There is really little new about duped dads. Throughout literary history, the man tricked into raising another's child was a stock figure of cuckolded buffoonery. But in the eyes of the law, the husband in any marriage was legally the father.

Now biological certainty intrudes into legal precedent and new scientific tests produce new legal tests. In the fallout of divorce and child support, courts are being asked to decide what's fair for men and what's best for children. And they are also being asked what exactly makes a man a father.

Life, it turns out, is nowhere nearly as clear cut as biology. In the Massachusetts case, the unwed father had passed up the chance for a DNA test. He signed on the dotted paternity line when Cheryl was born.

Over many years and despite many suspicions -- rumors and infertility problems in a later marriage -- he was called "daddy" and acted as one. His parents were her grandparents and twice he sought more rights to visitation.

In short, as the court noted, "Cheryl grew to know and to rely on him as her father, and he enjoyed her love and companionship." Only after the mother asked for more money did he take the DNA test and head to court.

But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that he was too late to resign from fatherhood as if it were genehood. "No judgment can force him to continue to nurture his relationship with Cheryl," acknowledged the justices in a unanimous decision, "or to protect her from whatever assumptions she may have about her father. But we can protect her financial security and other legal rights."

This "victory" for the child is cast as a defeat for the man. The duped dads lawsuits are, after all, brought into courtrooms under the flag of men's rights. They are testing men's rights to cut their fatherhood ties and responsibilities.

But what would happen to men's rights if DNA was used in the opposite way, to strip them of contact with children? How many men who had changed a thousand diapers would fairly howl if DNA evidence was used to sever their relationship with the children they raised?

What does make a father? Diapers or DNA? In fact, family law seems to be going in two directions at once. We are giving more recognition to non-biological relationships, like stepparents. And more weight to DNA.

As men cry fraud, several states have either passed or are considering laws that would automatically end a man's child support obligation. A South Dakota court ruled that a deceived man should be reimbursed by the woman. Meanwhile, a model uniform state law recommends giving men just two years to question and test paternity.

The anger that fuels these cases and the laws to set men free has less to do with the kids than with the women who deceived -- either by what was said or unsaid. Men who have discovered or confirmed the truth describe the moment, as Carnell Smith, the Georgia poster boy for paternity fraud, does: "I believed somebody had just slugged me in the stomach."

Do we need to say that such family secrets are explosive? Corrosive? Do we need to say that deliberate deception dupes not one man but two? Or that the real innocent, the real victim of deception is the child?

I suspect that the availability of DNA testing eventually may make such secrets extinct. But today I find myself wondering about a 7-year-old girl.

"I still love the little girl," said the man who sued to be rid of fatherhood. How will he explain why he now calls Cheryl the little girl. Not my little girl.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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