When Your Child Isn’t Yours
Fathers’ Rights: Courts Usually Rule Fathers Must Pay Child Support
Aman who paid child support for 11 years is owed more than$14,000 after he discovered the child he was told was his, wasn’t really.AGeorgia judge ruled in the case earlier this year, saying that the child’s birth mother and biological father have torepay the money he’s been paying since 1997. “We have seen it happen before,” Sandra Jarrett of the state’s Child Support Recovery Unit told The Augusta, Ga., Chronicle.
But that wasn’t the case forDr. Enrique Terrazas, who for 12 years thought he had two daughters.He loved them both, bought them Christmas and birthday gifts and raised them as his own “ until he found out that wasn’t true.While his older daughter was his biological child, his younger child, just 10, was not. She was the product of an affair that his wife had just before filing for divorce when his youngest was a baby.
I did suspect during our marriage that she was getting too friendly with one of her friends, but she told me nothing was happening and I thought she was being honest with me,” Terrazas says. In other words, he trusted her.It was precisely that trust that has Terrazas in his current situation: paying $3,000 a month to a child he knows not to be is, but with whom he no longer has regular visitation.
The case has left Terrazas devastated.” And when he made the decision to tell his daughter that she was not his biological child, she was also distraught. She needed to know,” Terrazas explains.
As a medical doctor, he is well aware that the implications of genetics are far-reaching, he says telling the story of a 6-year-old boy who was on a fishing trip with the man he thought to be his father.When the boy snagged himself on a rusty fishing hook, the father brought his son to the hospital where he told the doctors that there was no history of antibiotic allergies in his family history. The boy went into anaphylactic shock and died.
Later, his ex-wife admitted that he was not the father and the real father had a severe antibiotic allergy. Luckily, nothing so tragic had happened to Terrazas, but still thought the truth needed to be told. I had been giving her pediatrician the wrong family history all this time,” he says.
Soon after he told the truth, Terrazas ceased contact with his non-biological daughter — a decision he regrets to this day. I had this need to get some justice out of the situation,” he says. But basically, there was none. Now I just want to direct my energy to repairing the relationship with the girls and to improving the system.”
As painful as Terrazas’ situation is, he is far from alone. Recent cases like the Anna Nicole Smith, Larry Birkhead, Howard Stern situation have highlighted the issue of paternity fraud”naming the wrong man as father to a child–and brought it into the media spotlight. But the problem is not a new one. An estimated one million men in the United States alone have been in similar situations, according to Carnell Smith, who runs a DNA-testing company and is founder of Atlanta-based US Citizens Against Paternity Fraud.
Smith’s own mission started when he found out the daughter he had been raising “ and supporting “ as his own, was not. I supported who I thought was my daughter for 11 years. I went to her school functions. I was a very involved parent,” Smith says. My father told me that if I helped bring a child into this world, I was to help take care of them. I believed that.”
But what if he did not help bring that child into the world? What if the biological father was far away, unaware that his daughter was being supported by another man?These were the questions Smith asked himself when he found out the truth via paternity test, something Smith was inspired to do after his ex requested — and was granted — a child support increase quadrupling his original amount from $375 per month to $1,100. “After I did the first test, I contacted my attorney,” Smith says. “There was no way she couldn’t have known the truth.”
According to Smith, once pressed, his ex was able to name the biological father of her daughter within seconds. At first, Smith assumed his obligation of support would end. But he was wrong. Had I been excused of murder or rape by DNA, the facts would have exonerated me,” he says. But in paternity, I still had to pay.”
And pay he did. Even when he stopped visitation. Even when he took it to court.By this time, Smith and his new wife had a newborn daughter and the stress was causing his wife to not eat or sleep,” says Smith. At that point, all I wanted to do was protect my family.It brought out this warrior spirit.”
At the time, Smith, who advocates for paternity tests for all children at birth, was unable to end his support obligation because he had long since passed the statute of limitations to contest paternity, which varies by state. If we did paternity tests at birth, we would know all the facts right away,” says Smith, who explains that out of 45 accredited paternity testing sites nationwide, 310,000 paternity tests are done a year.
Each year 100,000 of those come back negative, Smith says. The American Association of Blood Banks supports that claim with a figure of 27 percent, but they also point out that figure is not directly related to paternity fraud cases and, in many cases, might indicate one child with several potential fathers who came in for testing. Still, the number is high. And there is a time limit to finding the truth once a father is named whether he has been tested or not, says Smith who claims he had no reason to suspect that his ex was anything but truthful.
Smith points out that a mother may file for child support up until a child is 18 or older and they are eligible for all of the back support for the years the father was not supporting the child, a fact that Smith says is an unfair double standard. He was furious that his ex could lie, name him and get away with it while he pays the price for trusting her. She took advantage of my desire to do the right thing,” he says.
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania would disagree with the men crying foul. Out in the big bad world of sex, there is some conniving,” Caplan says. People do this all the time. They lie, they cheat, and they connive. But once you are in that role, the role of parent, you are sunk.”
But, in this case, being sunk may not be the worst thing, Caplan says, arguing that acting as a father for years and thinking of oneself as the father makes one the father. “It brings us into the question of what is the role of the parent? Is it a social role or a biological one?”
The answer, in Caplan’s opinion, is clear: I think the ethical thing to do is shut up and be the dad,” he says. Caplan also points out that court is not interested in a he said, she said dialogue. They are interested in the child being supported. From society’s point of view, do we want to pick up the tab for these children?” Caplan asks. It is not in the kid’s — or society’s — best interest to leave children fatherless.”
Caplan’s best estimate is that roughly four to five percent of men, even as high as 10 percent in some parts of the world,” are raising children that are not theirs, he says, citing numerous genetic studies. For him, the simple fact is that a father is the one raising the child, not necessarily the one whose DNA matches.But for Terrazas, that DNA was very important. And the loss and the pain that followed such deceptions hurts more people than just the alleged father and children. It also hurts their new families.
For Smith, activism helped. He was able to rewrite legislation in the Georgia courts so that finally “ after several years “ he was able to stop paying support, but not before losing more than $160,000 in support and legal fees. And perhaps worst of all, Smith has lost his former daughter completely. I have not seen her since April 16, 2000,” Smith says. But my family and I love her and we are always open to her,” he says.
Terrazas’ relationships with both of the girls have been affected by the truth. His biological daughter feels caught in the middle, he says. And he is still paying 30 percent of his salary to the both girls, a fact that has greatly affected his new family. He did go to court and try to get his support lowered,” says Mia Terrazas, Dr. Terrazas’ wife and the one who first pointed out that she suspected his younger daughter was not his.
But in California, an order of support is a formula, one that takes into account the earnings “ and potential earnings “ of each former spouse.They do not take into account biological children living with either parent, says Mia. And the couple would not be able to have biological children of their own because the child support payments would make them impossible to afford, she says.
We need to have reform in family courts,” says Mia who went through her own very amicable divorce. We never went through the courts once our divorce was final.” But seeing what her husband has gone through has made Mia fierce. I have been doing a lot of work to get the laws changed. To lie to your child about who fathered them is wrong. And it should be illegal.”
Sasha Brown-Worsham is a freelance writer in Boston, Mass. who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Technology Review, Babble.com and many other publications.