November 5, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
In the U.S., it’s still the case that a man who’s not a child’s father can be made to pay child support for that child. Yes, genetic testing is common, but its use sometimes fails to connect fathers and children. Two recent cases remake the same point we’ve seen made countless times.
In the first, a Florida man signed the child’s birth certificate in the honest belief that he was the father (NBC Miami, 10/20/19).
Joseph Sinawa told NBC affiliate WTLV-TV that he signed the birth certificate because he did truly believe he was the father…
That of course means that Mom mislead him about the facts of the child’s paternity, a matter that goes unmentioned by the article. The woman knew that she’d had sex with Sinawa and another man at or near the time of conception. But she didn’t tell Sinawa about the other man and apparently either didn’t tell the actual father about the child at all or told him it was Sinawa’s.
Exactly how Sinawa came to believe that the child isn’t his remains a mystery, but at some point, he took a DNA test that demonstrated his non-paternity. But, under orders from the state, he’s still paying. Why? Because the state’s child support enforcement officials refuse to do the obvious and right thing.
Sinawa found out he was not the father after the DNA test was administered by a St. Johns County court following a custody question – but the state’s Department of Revenue appealed the decision because they say Sinawa has not properly attempted to disestablish paternity.
Sinawa’s not a lawyer and he doesn’t have the money to hire one, so he’s probably a bit confused about what he needs to do to satisfy the Department of Revenue. While he struggles to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, he still has to pay.
But of course nothing prevents the DoR’s lawyers from simply acknowledging the fact that Sinawa’s not the father, dismissing the case against him and getting an order of support from the man who is. It’s something they should have done the day after they received the test results. Instead, they’ve chosen to make life hard on a man who owes nothing.
The second case comes to us from Pennsylvania (Altoona Mirror, 10/27/19). It involves the curious legal doctrine of “paternity by estoppel,” that might better be called the doctrine of “no good deed goes unpunished.”
Basically, estoppel means that, if a person engages in a course of conduct, that person may not later reject the legal implications of that course of conduct. In this case, the unnamed man acted as the child’s father, knowing full well that he wasn’t and the court ruled that he could not later disavow paternity.
The man met the mother some 12 years ago when the child was an infant. Although the pair never married, he stepped into the role of father, cared for the child, supported her, told people he was her father, etc. But then Mom decided she wanted nothing more to do with the man – except receiving his child support – and walked away from their relationship. The man refused to pay support, but she went to court and got an order requiring him to do so.
The doctrine of estoppel in this case is aimed at keeping intact father-child relationships that have been established and whose destruction would be detrimental to the child’s well-being. That’s a laudable-enough goal, but, as the case makes abundantly clear, one that the law is entirely incapable of achieving.
In the first place, the law that attempts to require a non-father to continue acting as if he were a father also allows a mother to divorce or separate from that non-father. So, to the extent that separation removed this father from the child’s life, the law is perfectly content with the trauma to the child inspired by that separation. Fathers typically receive court orders for every-other-weekend visitation plus a couple of hours one night per week. That hardly bespeaks a policy on the part of the state of keeping fathers actively involved in children’s lives. In short, there’s a double standard at work here.
The man rarely saw the child after separation, and at one point, he walked by her without acknowledgement.
Stated another way, if a man doesn’t want to be involved in a child’s life, there’s nothing a state can do to make him. And of course that’s not the point of paternity by estoppel. The point is not paternal involvement, the point is money. The point is a transfer of funds from a man to a mom. Period.
But, if you now consider the doctrine to be odd, just wait. You haven’t seen anything yet.
The Superior Court opinion written by Judge Victor P. Stabile explained that the doctrine relies on a public policy concern that “children should be secure in knowing who their parents are.”
“If a certain person has acted as the parent and bonded with the child, the child should not be required to suffer the potentially damaging trauma that may come from being told the father (she) had known all her life is not in fact (her) father,” the Superior Court stated.
But the doctrine does no such thing, indeed, it may even do the opposite. We don’t know from the article if the child knew her actual father or not. Whatever the case, he played no part in her life. Did he even know about her? There’s no legal obligation on the mother’s part to tell him. How does that square with Pennsylvania’s passionate desire that children know who their parents are? It doesn’t.
And how was this child shielded from “the potentially damaging trauma that may come from being told the father (she) had known all her life is not in fact (her) father?” Needless to say, she wasn’t. She knows that the man who’d cared for her all those years isn’t her father. That’s what the legal case has been about.
Therefore, the Superior Court is at cross purposes with itself. On one hand, it wants the child to “be secure in knowing who [her] parents are.” That would mean introducing her to her actual father, whoever he may be. On the other, it wants to prevent her from undergoing the trauma of being told that the man she’d always considered her father in fact is no such thing.
The court can’t have it both ways.
What it could do of course is place the onus of paternity on the man who is, you know, the father. Would that avoid all possible pain to a child? No, but no other law would accomplish that feat either. What it would do however is to place the requirement of supporting a child on the man who helped create it. It would also prevent the rank injustice of a forcing a man to pay for a child who’s not his. In short, it would make sense and do justice. Imagine that.