Advertisement

Unwed Paternity: Scene Is Shifting From the Courtroom to the Hospital : Birth records: More and more young fathers are acknowledging their babies as newborns. They might be less likely to do so a year later.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Here in the postpartum ward at the Virginia Baptist Hospital, vital records secretary Joann Butler has begun asking unwed fathers a question that used to be put to them later on, in a courthouse, by a judge: Do you want to acknowledge paternity?

A surprising number of unwed dads take a look at the little bundle of joy they have helped bring into the world and sign on the dotted line.

“We’ve finally figured out that the golden moment is right after birth,” said Larry Jackson, Virginia’s commissioner of the Department of Social Services, which is behind the program to move the process that establishes paternity out of the courts--where it’s often been a time-consuming, costly, low-yield chase--and into the hospitals, where it can be settled in a matter of minutes. “That’s when the dads are bursting with pride,” he said.

“If you wait six months or a year later, the relationship (between the mother and the father) may very well have deteriorated and there are going to be problems,” said Robert Krause, district manager of the state’s child support office in Lynchburg.

Advertisement

“Problems” is a polite way of saying that unwed fathers as a group are notoriously difficult to track down and serve with child-support orders. Just 23.9% of never-married mothers nationwide received child support from absent fathers in 1989, compared to 72% of divorced or separated mothers.

Moreover, never-married mothers head the fastest-growing and the poorest families in the country; 26% of all births in the United States are out of wedlock, four times the rate of a generation ago. Last year, 54% of all never-married mothers were poor, partly because they received little or no child support.

If there is a silver lining to these demographic trends it is that as unmarried parents have become more numerous, they have become less stigmatized, so fathers are more inclined to acknowledge paternity. In 1989, when there were more than 1 million out-of-wedlock births nationwide, 335,589 paternities were established--up from 231,838 of about 831,000 such births in 1985.

“Lots of unmarried fathers do want to do the right thing and acknowledge paternity, but until last year, we forced them to go into court, sometimes two or three times,” said Harry Wiggins, director of Virginia’s division of child support. “For a lot of these young, low-income fathers, courts don’t necessarily have the best association.”

Advertisement

In 1990, Virginia joined 17 other states in enacting a law that makes paternity a simple administrative procedure, established by the sworn written statement of both parents. The courts get involved only when paternity is denied and the matter has to be settled by genetic blood testing.

The Virginia Department of Social Services since has gone a step further by encouraging hospitals to set up outreach programs to establish paternity at the time of birth. So far, two Virginia hospitals--Virginia Baptist and Sentara Norfolk General in Norfolk--are participating; several others are expected to join soon.

The idea met with some skepticism here. “When we started doing this (in April), I thought we’d get maybe 5% of unwed dads participating,” said Virginia Baptist Hospital President Thomas C. Jividen. But he has been “pleasantly surprised” that the success rate is closer to 25%. The rate is about a third at Sentara, and in Washington state, which was first to offer in-hospital paternity establishment, the rate is above 50%.

Some maternity ward veterans have not been surprised. “When I first started working here 13 years ago, if the birth was out of wedlock, the father would rarely show up at the hospital,” said Adell Robertson-Porter, postpartum head nurse at Sentara Norfolk. “Now they come in just like the married fathers, and they’re in the birthing room and they participate in the delivery.”

Advertisement

A Ford Foundation study of young unwed fathers conducted last year by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that in the first year, four-fifths of them had bonded with their baby in some way--by providing money for clothes and diapers or caring for the child. However, less than a fifth of them were living in the same household as the baby by the time he or she reached age 1.

Even in the “golden moment” immediately after childbirth, not all new dads--or new moms, for that matter--are sold on the benefits to the child of legal paternity.

“When I gave birth to my first child, I didn’t want to give her my boyfriend’s name because he was an alcoholic and we were always fussing and fighting with each other. I was afraid if we signed papers saying he was the father, he might come and take the kid away,” said a 24-year-old woman, who asked that her name not been used.

The woman, who was interviewed just after giving birth here to a second child by a different father, said she has a different attitude now. Her new relationship is more stable and both parents have signed paternity papers. Marriage is another matter. “I feel like two people should only get married if they love each other,” she said, “and not just because they have a kid together.”

Advertisement

More commonly, the mother is eager to have the father acknowledge paternity, but the father is wary. “The big sticking point is that it paves the way to having to pay child support,” said Robertson-Porter. “When I go over that part of it with both parents in the room, you get a lot of fathers saying, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ The mothers are usually pretty hurt, because they know that means he’s not going to sign.”

The two hospitals give brochures to unwed parents that detail the benefits to the newborn of a legal establishment of paternity: It helps in detecting hereditary diseases, it assures the child will receive all the Social Security, veterans or insurance benefits that may be due him or her through the father and it facilitates the collection of child support.

It doesn’t guarantee that child support payments will be made; a mother still must go to court to get a collection order. And even if a father acknowledges paternity at birth, he still has the right to come back at a later time to contest it in court, though such cases are rare.

At the very least, the hospital-based program saves time and money. Virginia child support officials estimate that it costs from $400 to $1,000 to process paternity cases through the courts. When it is done in the hospital, all they pay is $20 to cover the hospital’s record-keeping expenses. Washington state is now able to establish child-support orders for unwed mothers an average of 98 days after the birth, compared to the year or more it took before the hospital-based program.

Advertisement

Some go so far as to hope that the program might also help bond father to child. Studies show that unwed fathers who pay child support are more likely to stay involved in their children’s lives, though researchers have not been able to untangle which is the cause and which is the effect.

“There is a risk of reading too much into the willingness of the father to acknowledge paternity at childbirth,” cautioned Charles Adams, an Ohio State University researcher who has studied child-support programs. “The whole issue doesn’t really come to a head until later on, when a support order is entered and the relationship between the mother and father is over.”

“We don’t know yet whether this is going to lead to a better relationship between unwed fathers and children,” said Esther Wattenberg, author of the Ford Foundation study. “But what is quite clear is that the hospital setting is a critical moment. The young parents are totally absorbed in the happiness of having their newborn. Unless we want a whole generation of kids to grow up without having any legal connection to their fathers, we ought to forge a link, right then and there.”


Advertisement
Advertisement