Doubting dads prompt paternity test trend
Dr. Mark Hudson always wondered why his son didn't look like him.
"My wife and I were both in (medical) residency at the time, and we used birth control religiously," said Hudson, 44, now divorced and remarried. "I actually asked her, at the time, if this was my child. She said, 'Of course.' Most people trust their spouse."
A genetic test last year confirmed his doubts.
Hudson, an anesthesiologist from Finleyville, Washington County, said a DNA test he commissioned showed another man had fathered the 12-year-old boy. Hudson was miffed when a judge recently ordered him to continue paying $2,800 a month in child support for two children, even though he fathered just one of them.
Nationwide, thousands of men are being forced to pay support for someone else's children, according to fathers' rights groups. Doubting dads can buy a $99 DNA paternity home-test kit online to show whether a child is biologically theirs.
Court decisions increasingly take DNA testing into account in determining paternity, but that is not the only factor judges consider when deciding whether to order child support payments after a couple split up.
"DNA testing has spiked in particular in the last five to six years. Exposure to DNA testing on TV is a big part of that," said Len Stone, president of American Medical Services. He said his company sells thousands of DNA kits and most are used for paternity tests.
Courts in six Western Pennsylvania counties ordered DNA tests of about 4,500 children and adults last year to establish paternity. More than half of those tests -- 2,700 -- were ordered in Allegheny County, said Patrick Quinn, administrator of the adult section of family court.
Taxpayers pick up the $210 cost of each case, which usually includes testing for mom, dad and child. If the test confirms the man as the biological father, he is billed for the cost, Quinn said. Generally, the federal government reimburses counties for 66 percent of the cost of the test when the father is not identified.
Even when DNA tests confirm suspicions, many men such as Hudson are surprised to learn they're still financially responsible for a child not biologically theirs. Paternity is about more than who provides the DNA, legal experts say.
Pennsylvania's court rulings largely depend on the individual situation, said Dan Richard, director of the state Bureau of Child Support.
"The laws on the books now were developed when DNA testing did not exist," Richard said. "I realize there are those who say we should rely 100 percent on genetic testing. But you just can't take a father away. You have to balance the science vs. the children."
Child advocate groups, such as the National Center for Youth Law, based in Oakland, Calif., say paternity laws that allow fathers to walk out of children's lives are not in the best interest of the youngsters.
"In the end, this is about kids. These days, biology is not and should not be the primary factor in determining who the father is," said Curt Child, a senior attorney with the center. "Of equal importance should be the best interests of the child.
"For an individual to come back years later and say, 'I was duped. I'm not the father,' will have a significant impact on the child."
Child said a man who is unsure he is the biological father should challenge paternity when a child is born. Waiting risks having the child grow dependent on the man's emotional and financial support.
Generally, Pennsylvania courts determine paternity based on the relationship between father and child, the child's age and whether a marriage and family are intact, Richard said. Courts consider how long a man knew he was not the biological father before challenging paternity in court.
Courts have ruled that if a man acts as the child's father, he can be held financially responsible for the child, said Downtown-based family law attorney Lisa Marie Vari.
"It's really the (woman) who had the relationship, and it's not fair to fraudulently hold a man responsible for this obligation," Vari said. "You have to balance that against the emotional needs of a child."
That was part of the reasoning used by Allegheny County Judge Kathleen Mulligan, who ruled that Hudson must continue paying child support for both children conceived during his 11-year marriage, including one who private DNA testing showed was not his.
In an opinion issued Friday, Mulligan wrote, "It is recognized that damage may already have been done in this case because (Hudson's son) may well be aware of his father's position. However, the policy question remains as to whether the law should encourage parties to challenge the paternity of 12-year-old children whom they have raised all of their lives.
"While one may have little sympathy for the mother under these circumstances, (the son) should not be punished."
Hudson's ex-wife, Nicolette Chiesa, said in court papers that Hudson acted as the boy's father throughout the child's life and should not change that stance. She and Hudson were married in May 1989 and divorced in October 2000. They had a daughter during their marriage, and the two children should be treated equally, Chiesa's court documents state. Chiesa's lawyer declined comment.
Hudson is appealing to state Superior Court. He said he would like to continue a relationship with his son, but has not seen him for more than a year because of legal and custody conflicts.
"I still feel like he's my son. But I think it's wrong to enrich the person who committed the fraud," Mark Hudson said. "The child deserves the truth."
Pennsylvania paternity rulings
While DNA testing can determine whether a man is the biological father of a child, Pennsylvania courts have returned mixed rulings on whether he is responsible for support payments after he and the mother split up. When the child and presumed father have bonded and the man has acknowledged being the father, the man can be required to pay support. However, Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that men no longer had to make support payments in at least two cases involving DNA testing:
• In 2003, Superior Court upheld a Luzerne County judge's ruling that eliminated support payments by William Doran, who used DNA results to exclude himself as the father of a child conceived during his marriage. The child was 11 when Doran learned he was not the father, according to court documents.
• In February, Superior Court said an Erie County judge incorrectly ordered Gregory Gatti to continue paying support for a toddler who was not biologically his. The couple were never married. The child was 18 months old when Gatti learned through DNA testing that another man was the father. The Erie County judge said Gatti should pay support, noting that Gatti had acted as the father and claimed the child as a dependent on tax returns. Superior Court judges overturned that ruling, saying the mother tricked Gatti into believing he was the father.
Courts in a six Western Pennsylvania counties -- Allegheny, Westmoreland, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler and Washington -- ordered DNA tests of about 4,500 children and adults last year to establish paternity.