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Michigan reform plan fights rising paternity fraud

By Glenn Sacks and Dianna Thompson
web posted September 30, 2002

"You play, you pay" is the response often given to men who complain about the financial burden of supporting their offspring. Today, for thousands of Michigan men, the refrain has become "You didn't play? You pay anyway."

The stories of victims of paternity fraud often provoke disbelief. Many men are falsely assigned paternity in default judgments and are compelled by the state to pay 18 years of child support for children whom DNA tests have proved are not theirs. Many of these men are not properly served notice of the paternity proceedings, never get their day in court and have no idea they are "fathers" until their wages are garnisheed.

Often by the time these men realize what has been done to them, the statue of limitations for challenging paternity has already passed, and they lose as much as half their take-home pay to child support, arrearages, interest, and penalties -- sometimes to support children they have never even met.

In other cases, men are misled into supporting children who are not theirs. Sometimes unwed men are urged to declare paternity of their girlfriend's or ex-lover's children at or near birth, and such declarations, when later found to be the product of deception, are hard to undo. Other men are deceived by wives who bear children through adulterous liaisons and who mislead them into thinking that the children are theirs.

In response to the paternity fraud crisis, the Michigan House of Representatives unanimously passed two paternity fraud relief bills last year. House Bill (HB) 4635 and HB 4636 direct courts to terminate child support obligations and cancel arrearages for men who can present evidence that they are not the fathers of the children whom they have been ordered to support. These bills are with the Senate's Families, Mental Health and Human Services Committee and will be the subject of a testimony-only hearing today.

Opponents argue that the bills would hurt children. However, these critics overlook the fact that when a father is forced to pay child support and arrearages for a child who is not his, his own biological children suffer. The children of falsely identified fathers need not be deprived of child support, because mothers in these cases can do what they should have done at the beginning -- disclose the true identity of their children's fathers so the state can then approach them to establish paternity and pay child support.

Children are also harmed by the current system because depriving a child of knowledge of his or her parentage can have damaging medical implications. For example, for children facing life-threatening illnesses such as cancers requiring bone-marrow transplants or other medical emergencies, knowing their biological heritage can be a matter of life or death. Also, according to the American Medical Association, it is important to have an accurate family history because genetic medicine is increasingly vital in the treatment of many diseases.

Michigan Family Independence Agency statistics indicate that 30 percent of the nonmarital paternity tests performed in Michigan exclude the tested man from being the child's biological father. The American Association of Blood Banks, which evaluated 280,000 paternity tests in 1999, found similar numbers.

Because paternity fraud is so common, several states, including Georgia earlier this year, have passed legislation allowing men greater opportunity to challenge paternity through DNA testing. A similar bill in California was passed by the Legislature and awaits Gov. Gray Davis' signature. Alaska has a law that requires unwed parents to establish paternity through genetic testing, thus insuring that child support orders are issued only to biological fathers.

Virginia Forton, founder and executive director of Moms for Dads, a group that supports the proposed reform legislation, says:

"Under the present system, it is easy for women to trick men and say 'this is your baby.' And it is the men who step forward and take responsibility for 'their' kids who are the ones who are most likely to get trapped. Everybody involved gets hurt."

Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from the male perspective. He can be reached at Glenn@GlennSacks.com. Dianna Thompson is the founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children (www.acfc.org). She can be contacted by e-mail at DThompson2232@aol.com. This column first appeared in the Detroit News (9/25/02).

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