Who's Your Daddy?

Duped Dads Fight Back, the Time Magazine report, is available online.

Advocates for these so-called duped dads say such men should be treated as victims of fraud and liken the need for paternity-disestablishment amendments to truth-in-lending laws. They point to many an egregious case in which the law's marital presumption of fatherhood has ended up enslaving a divorced dad, like the Michigan man who proved he had not sired his son but was still ordered to send child-support payments directly to the boy's biological father, who was granted custody after the mom moved out of his place and left the kid there. Increasingly, policymakers across the country are turning a sympathetic ear to such complaints. Florida last year joined Georgia and Ohio in allowing a man to walk away from any financial obligations regardless of how many years he may have been acting as a minor's father if he discovers he was deceived into parenthood. Fathers' rights groups in Colorado, Illinois and West Virginia are pushing for similar legislation that would remove or extend existing time limits for challenging paternity.

Spearheading the legislative movement is Carnell Smith, a Georgia engineer who found out shortly after he broke up with his girlfriend that she was pregnant and spent the next 11 years believing he was the girl's father. Then, in 2000, after his visitation time had been cut back around the same time that a court order nearly doubled his monthly child-support payments, he took a test that showed he was not the biological parent. Three years and about $100,000 in child support and legal fees later, Smith, 46, managed to disentangle himself from any responsibilities for the girl, and says he walked out of court "a broke but free man." He successfully lobbied his home state to pass its paternity-fraud law in 2002 and now runs a DNA-testing company. Its slogan: "If the genes don't fit, you must acquit!"

But justice for a disillusioned dad can clash with the best interests of a child raised to think of him as a father. "These cases get cast as the duped dad vs. the scheming wife," says Temple University law professor Theresa Glennon, who has examined the changing legal landscape. "This is really about men deserting children they have been parenting." She points out that severing paternal ties could devastate a child depending on the length and quality of his relationship with the nonbiological father.