Non-biological dads face long odds

For one blissful year, Richard Williams of Schenectady was a single dad. He changed his baby daughte
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Categories: Schenectady County

For one blissful year, Richard Williams of Schenectady was a single dad. He changed his baby daughter’s diapers, heard her first words and began looking forward to her first step.

And then she was taken away.

A year after the child’s mother left Williams with the baby and moved to another state, she suddenly showed up again. To get custody of the girl, she told a judge that Williams wasn’t the father.

There was a paternity test. The DNA between Williams and the girl who called him “dada” was not even close. According to scientists, they could not be related.

And so a judge ruled that Williams had no legal connection to the girl. He was ordered to give her up.

Williams is one of a small but growing group of men who learn, usually long after a child is born, that they are not the biological father. The news is usually delivered during divorce proceedings, where DNA testing has become much more common. Most dads respond to the betrayal by cutting all ties with mother and child and petitioning the courts to exempt them from any financial support.

Williams did not.

He tried to convince the courts to give him the privileges and responsibilities of a father anyway. He argued that in deed and thought, he is the girl’s father — no matter what the DNA test said.

“I changed her diapers. I took care of her. Nothing ever happened to her when she was with me,” he said. “I just want to talk with her, to establish some sort of relationship with her.”

He challenged Family Court to define fatherhood as more than just strands of DNA. He lost in every way — he has not been granted even one day of visitation in the child’s life.

Typical outcome

Even biological dads rarely get physical custody of their child. Usually, the mother gets the child. The father gets visitation and a payment plan, said Schenectady County Public Defender Jean Carney.

But times have changed in the last decade, she added. Nowadays, while fathers still usually lose in custody petitions, it’s “not always.”

It’s even harder for fathers who are not the biological parent. They are almost never even granted standing in court, and then only if they raised the children for many years before their relationship was found to lack DNA bonds, Carney said.

But usually, the dads want to be heard in court to sever their father-child connection. Many turn to the national group Duped Dads, which helps non-biological fathers escape all parenting responsibilities. The group wants its members to be treated as victims of fraud.

Courts have not generally been receptive to this approach. The group has also campaigned to have states pass legislation that would allow them to get a paternity test during a divorce, no matter how old the child is, and that also has met with resistance.

According to published reports, youth advocacy groups from California to Kentucky have fought against the so-called Duped Dads legislation, saying the relationship between parent and child should be protected despite biology.

To do otherwise, they say, is to ignore the child’s right to a stable and consistent father.

“Once someone has stepped forward as a father and acted as a father and supported a child, then even if they simply discover that they are not biologically related, they should not then abandon this child and leave him without a father,” said Valerie Ackerman, staff attorney with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., in testimony against Duped Dads legislation in that state in 2007.

Interest of the children

Another opposition group, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said courts must consider the children as well as the “duped” dad. “Where there is an established parent-child bond, it’s not in the best interest of the children to terminate that bond,” spokeswoman Courtney Joslin said while fighting proposed legislation in 2007.

In Colorado, Department of Human Services officials told the state Senate to vote against Duped Dad legislation because DNA testing would cause psychological harm to the children — if they ended up losing their only known father.

In Schenectady County, judges have only once bowed to the possibility that removing a non-biological father could harm the children.

A man in prison petitioned the court for a paternity test to prove that he was the father of an 11-year-old girl. He had never met the child, who was being raised by a man she believed was her father. That man was not biologically related to her.

A judge ruled that the prisoner could not even get a DNA test to prove his connection because it would not be in the best interests of the child, Carney said.

In her 23-year career, it is the only time she has ever heard of a non-biological father winning a case.

Frustration and fear

But none of these arguments worked for Williams. His daughter was just 1 year old — young enough, according to the courts, to adapt to a mother she could not remember. Carney said that decision is common for very young children.

The trouble with such decisions is that it often leaves the child without any father at all. In Williams’ case, the person his ex-girlfriend has identified as the father is in prison and likely to remain there for many years. He has not taken a paternity test.

Instead of a father, the daughter has grown up with a series of her mother’s boyfriends, one of whom was charged with assault less than a year after Williams lost custody.

In a written deposition, police said bruises in the shape of a man’s hand covered the girl’s butt. The mother, who reported the injury to police, said her new boyfriend spanked the girl while potty-training her.

She was not yet 2 years old.

“She’d been away from me for less than a year and she’s being abused,” Williams said. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to know your daughter is being hurt and you can do nothing about it?”

Cases of abuse

A federal study in 1997 found that child abuse in single-parent households was nearly double the rate of abuse in married-parent households. Because so many children are raised by single mothers, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also found in 2003 that 64 percent of all child abuse was committed by a mother.

Disturbingly, it found that roughly 17 percent of all abuse was committed by a boyfriend or other man living in a single-mother’s household.

Father advocates cite such studies as a critical reason for courts to enable father figures to continue their close relationship with their child.

Ken Braswell, who runs Fathers Inc., makes a point of introducing himself to every one of his ex-wife’s boyfriends. The goal, he said, is to make it clear that Daddy will step in to protect his daughters if the new man steps out of line.

Other experts argue that children need a constant father figure in their lives, whether or not the man is a biological relative.

Critical role

The state believes fathers are so important that it runs a Fatherhood Initiative, designed to get fathers emotionally involved in their children’s lives, rather than just contributing child support.

“Studies have shown again and again the involvement of both parents in their life, emotionally and financially, leads to greater success for that child,” said spokesman Anthony Farmer. “It’s not just biological fathers. It’s father figures. A grandfather, a stepfather, the data is pretty conclusive. Kids who have that do better and become better parents themselves.”

Father advocates also argue that the benefits of two parents cannot be duplicated by a single mother.

Braswell says that if one parent is the comforting nurturer, the other can encourage the child to take risks. Between the two, the child develops the confidence to try new things.

He thinks girls in particular need a father’s risk-taking support.

“If something happens, she always has the consciousness that ‘I can call my daddy,’ ” Braswell said. “That means a lot to young girls, that they have a responsible man in their life. It allows them to become more empowered and build their self-esteem. It allows them to become aggressive in the pursuit of their academic studies.”

Even a genetics expert said the argument has merit.

“It’s feelings, not DNA, that matters. It’s who raises the kid,” said genetics expert Ricki Lewis of Scotia.

But in Williams’ case, courts have ruled that his feelings do not matter.

He approached the girl last year, when she turned 14, after hearing that she had possibly been abused again. She had been sent to foster care.

“I can’t wait until she turns 18,” he said. “When she turns 18, what am I going to say? She’s going to say, ‘You gave up on me, I went through all that and nobody cared.’ ”

Price of commitment

But as he tried to carefully build a mentor-like relationship with the girl, her mother retaliated.

According to a police deposition, the mother told the girl that Williams had kidnapped her as a baby and kept her for months. She warned her that Williams would try to steal her again, and then went to police with the same story.

Not knowing that Williams had court-ordered custody of the child during the time in question, police arrested him the next time he approached the girl as she hung out with friends before school. He was charged with stalking.

For seven months, Williams waited behind bars. He insisted on a trial. His attorney begged him to consider a defense of mental illness, that an obsession had overwhelmed his good sense, but Williams refused.

Last week, the charge was formally dismissed without a trial. But it left Williams shaken and uncertain of precisely what contact he can have with the girl without winding up in jail.

This is the legal tightrope he must walk — trying to be a father without triggering the defenses set up to protect children from sexual predators and other criminals.

For now, he has interrogated his friends among her family, trying to find out if she’s being abused. He has been reassured that she’s OK.

“That’s a big relief,” he said.

But he isn’t content to leave it at that.

He says his last conversation with his daughter convinced him that she wants him to keep trying to build a legal relationship with her.

“I asked her if she wanted me to be in her life,” he said. “I told her if she doesn’t, I’ll understand, because I haven’t been in her life.”

Instead, he said, she asked him to stay.

“I told her, I don’t know how long it will take,” he said. “It may take years. But I will be here for you.”

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