Sunday, March 19, 2000

Child support cases hinge on DNA testing

The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — When Dennis Caron found out his girlfriend was pregnant in 1989 he did what he thought was the right thing and they got married. By 1992, he had filed for divorce. Then, Mr. Caron said, “She hinted that I may not be the father of our child.”

        What's happened in the years since turned Mr. Caron into an advocate of changing Ohio's child support law. He and the sponsor of a bill before a Senate committee believe men have a right to have their child support obligation lifted if genetic testing proves they are not the fathers.

  • is the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
  • promotes equal access for both parents and equal sharing of responsibilities.
        Opponents of the bill say judges must have discretion to decide when to reopen child support cases, to look out for the child's best interests.

        Mr. Caron, 43, of Powell, Ohio, said he paid for a DNA test after his divorce that proved he wasn't the father of the boy he once thought was his son. He said he felt betrayed but still loved the boy.

        “It makes no difference to me,” he said. “I wanted shared legal custody of Tommy, but I also wanted her to identify the real father.”

        Mr. Caron said he sued to end paying child support only after his ex-wife cut off his contact with the child.

        Andrea Yagoda, a lawyer who represents Gina Manfresca, Mr. Caron's ex-wife, said Ms. Manfresca could not comment on the case because of the pending lawsuit.

        Mr. Caron says his ex-wife tells Tommy, now 9, that he is his real dad.

        Since a judge determined Mr. Caron to be the father during his divorce hearings and ordered him to pay support, that obligation continues. Mr. Caron is accumulating $530 each month in owed child support.

        Mr. Caron, who stopped making child support payments in 1997, has a bond against his home to cover the $20,000 he owes in case he loses. Mr. Caron says he spent another $60,000 in legal fees.

        “The mother can raise the issue of paternity to make a man lose his parental rights, but courts can force fathers who raise the issue, even with genetic proof, to continue paying,” he said.

        Mr. Caron testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 2 in support of the bill that would allow men to stop paying child support and sue to recover past payments if they can prove with DNA testing that they are not the child's father.

        A version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Peter Lawson Jones, D-Shaker Heights, passed the House in November. He says current law is especially unfair to men who were tricked into acknowledging paternity.

        “Frankly, if we don't change the law we are allowing that handful of mothers to pick among her lovers the man who is doing the best or who they love the most at that moment and make him the father,” Mr. Jones said. “The current law doesn't punish mothers who do that.”

        In most states, the law presumes a man is the legal father of any child born to his wife during their marriage. DNA testing has inspired men who pay child support to want to reopen cases, but they have not had much success around the country. Men's groups are trying to change paternity laws not only in Ohio but in other states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.

        Many states have policies like one in California to forbid “inquiries into the child's paternity that would be destructive of family integrity and privacy.”

        Ohio law lets a man ask a judge to correct a paternity ruling within a year, “but most men don't find out before then,” Mr. Jones said. “It is often not until the divorce or child custody hearings when a man finds out.”

        The Legislative Budget Office, while acknowledging the lack of precise records, predicts that fewer than 1,000 men will successfully challenge support orders each year in Ohio under the bill.

        Licking County Juvenile Court Judge Paulette Lilly expects many more requests in her court for DNA testing to determine paternity if Mr. Jones' bill becomes law.

        “It would almost constitute malpractice if a lawyer did not request a DNA paternity test,” Judge Lilly said. “They might as well roll the dice and have a test done.”

        Mr. Jones said men who end their child support under his bill also could lose visitation rights.

        “They can't have their cake and eat it too,” Mr. Jones said. “The mother could allow him to visit, but she could also keep him away.”

        “When a dad finds out he is not the father, the relationship with the mother and probably the child are going to suffer, it's just human nature,” Mr. Jones said. “The damage has already been done.”

        Opponents of the bill say it could disrupt children's lives and ruin families financially. Officials said it also will cost the government an undetermined amount of money to pay for genetic tests and legal work involved in welfare cases, in which county agencies rely on child support as reimbursement.

        “The bill started out as a good concept — the true father should be obligated to pay — but we have to be careful,” said Debbie Kline, national projects director for the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. “It immediately terminates the father-child relationship. How is the court going to say they don't have any emotional ties?”

        Franklin County Domestic Relations Judge Yvette McGee-Brown opposes part of the bill.

        “I think that child support and visitation should remain separate,” she said. “The child doesn't care if they are not making support payments,” she said.


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