Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 7|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
The law that Smith helped to pass in Georgia, like a similar one in Ohio, sets no time limit on using DNA to challenge paternity. The premise is that a man shouldn’t be punished for entering a paternal relationship that he would have avoided had he known the truth. It is, Smith says, a correction to a double standard that allows mothers and caseworkers to use DNA to prove paternity but prohibits men from using that same evidence to escape its obligations. But child-welfare experts counter that a child shouldn’t be punished by losing the only father she has ever known — or the financial security he offers — just because he’s upset that she doesn’t share his genes. In 2002 the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws — an influential body of lawyers and judges that proposes model laws — drafted a compromise. The proposal would allow the presumed father, the biological father or the mother to challenge the paternity until a child turns 2. The proposal had two goals: to balance the rights of children with those of their presumed fathers and to encourage parentage questions to be raised early in a child’s life, before deep bonds are formed. Several states, including Delaware, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, have adopted that model or a variation of it. But men’s rights groups complain that most putative fathers don’t discover the child isn’t theirs until after the two-year window closes — at which point, they have little or no recourse.
The last time Smith saw his one-time daughter was nine years ago, when she was 11. His outrage at Chandria’s mother and the system remains close to the surface. “We’re penalized for trusting our wives or girlfriends!” Smith seethed to me. He has long since lost track of Chandria. It is as if she ceased to exist once their biological connection evaporated.
Chandria, however, has not forgotten Smith. Her memories of her 11 years with him are happy ones, which makes what happened afterward so hard for her to grasp. As Chandria, who is now 20, remembers it, Smith just disappeared from her life. “I was just a kid, so I didn’t really understand what happened or why,” she said. “He never did explain why he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.” Chandria says he wouldn’t answer when she called him at home, or he would promise to call back but never did. Smith says he doesn’t recall Chandria calling him.
She stopped seeing friends and holed up in the bathroom, scratching and picking at her skin until it bled. The more it hurt, she told me, the calmer she felt. Her hair started to fall out, her grades slipped and she had trouble sleeping, details her mother and her mother’s lawyer at the time corroborated. Chandria received counseling at her school and privately for years.
“It kind of wrecked my self-esteem,” she says. “Even now, I worry about being a burden on people. I don’t want to be in the way. I don’t want to be anybody’s problem. It’s made me apprehensive about getting attached to people, because one day they’re there and the next day maybe they won’t be. You can’t help but be careful.”
Chandria now attends college in Georgia. She has seen Carnell Smith on the local news and on the Internet and cannot reconcile the man who seems to her so insensitive with the father she knew: attentive, seemingly proud of their relationship and eager to spend time with her. “He was what a father was supposed to be,” she says, “but when things changed, he completely disconnected. That’s just not fair. You’ve been in my life my entire life and for you to just cut that off for money, well, that’s not fair to anybody.”
Child-welfare advocates say that making biology the sole determinant of paternity in cases like Smith’s puts the nonbiological father’s interest above the child’s. Besides, society has increasingly recognized that parenthood is not necessarily bound to genetics. Reproductive technology has made it possible for one person to supply an egg, another to fertilize it, a third to gestate it and a fourth and fifth to be deemed the parents. Stepparents, grandparents and same-sex co-parents are increasingly winning legally protected access to children whom they helped raise, even when no direct genetic link exists.
Ruth Padawer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her last article for the magazine was about a dating site for “sugar daddies.”