In today’s world of technology and DNA testing, one would think that paternity establishment hearings would be pretty straightforward. Not so, as I learned from a recent case. The laws regarding paternity in the District of Columbia are a complicated maze of conclusions and presumptions. To pro se litigants unfamiliar with “legalese,” it’s dangerous territory.
The story for Mr. Green* began with a visit to the hospital to see a newborn baby that, at the time, he believed was his son. The child’s mother told him the baby was his, and he had no reason to doubt her. Upon Mr. Green’s arrival at the hospital, the child’s mother presented him with paperwork and told him to sign it. Wanting to do the “right” thing, Mr. Green signed the paperwork and turned it in according to the mother’s instructions.
Mr. Green signed an Acknowledgment of Paternity that day. A properly executed Acknowledgement of Paternity creates a conclusive presumption of paternity, and a court may order a man to pay child support based solely on the Acknowledgement. In fact, District of Columbia law states that when a valid Acknowledgement of Paternity exists, courts may not order parties to submit to DNA tests.
Six months after the child was born, the child’s mother and the District of Columbia filed a motion against Mr. Green to establish paternity and/or provide child support. Luckily for my client the Court credited his testimony, corroborated by the child’s mother, that he was never given “oral notice of the alternatives to, legal consequences of, and the rights and responsibilities that arise from signing the Acknowledgement,” as required for the Acknowledgement to be valid. See D.C. Code § 16-909.01(a)(1). The Court ordered a DNA test.
The DNA test conclusively excluded Mr. Green as the father of the child, yet the District continued to pursue its motion for child support. They argued that Mr. Green was the child’s “legal” father, regardless of the facts, and, accordingly, he should pay child support.
Legal Aid filed an opposition to the District’s motion and at our hearing last week the District of Columbia agreed to drop the case. The Court entered an order dismissing the case with prejudice and vacating the Acknowledgement.
In the end, the case resulted in a satisfactory ending for Mr. Green, but it raises some significant concerns regarding paternity establishment. Are putative fathers having their rights explained to them at the hospital before signing papers? More significantly, do they understand their rights? Do they understand that by signing they surrender their right to a DNA test? And even if they do understand, is it realistic to expect putative fathers to request DNA tests during the excitement of the birth of their child? To send a message to the child’s mother that says I don’t trust you and just want to be 100% sure?
There are certainly no easy answers. However, it is worth pointing out that the District does already have in place a process that allows non-biological parents to establish a parental relationship with a child -- it’s called adoption. The procedural safeguards involved in the adoption process exist for a reason. They are designed to protect the child and allow a court to consider and investigate the potential parent’s suitability prior to establishing a relationship. Perhaps it’s worth remembering this before the courts begin establishing paternity on the basis of papers signed at the hospital…
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.