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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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OP-ED: Is Tennessee turning a blind eye to paternity fraud?

by Rep. Antonio Parkinson —

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson. (Courtesy photo)

House Bill 2698/Senate Bill 1777, if it were to become law, would require unwed, prospective fathers to provide the results of a DNA test to Vital Records when voluntarily signing a birth certificate.

I am the prime sponsor of the pending legislation, which is scheduled for a floor vote on the Senate side on Thursday (March 17). A vote by the full House depends upon the action of the Civil Justice Committee, which will consider the measure next week.

Here’s why I am championing this legislation:

I was stopped in the barbershop by a man who told me his story of a long-term relationship in which a baby was born, prompting him to sign the birth certificate. Five-plus years later, he was told that the baby’s mother also had been with her ex-boyfriend before the baby’s birth.

He sought a DNA test, with the results proving that he was not the father. Subsequently, the relationship ended and the baby’s mother opened a child support case against him.

The paternity evidence was presented to a Juvenile Court magistrate, who basically told him, “Somebody’s got to feed him and it will be you.” He was ordered to pay child support and walked out of the court in arrears.

Eventually, his driver’s license was suspended. Stopped by law enforcement, he was jailed for driving on a suspended license. While in jail, he lost his job; his life turned upside down.

Tennessee law provides a period for a person signing a birth certificate to rescind. Since the window had closed, this man was legally considered the child’s father.

In this story are multiple tragedies.

Not only was this man not the father, but the biological father’s rights were also abridged, with a huge legal battle the only way to get those rights back. And, the child’s right to a life with the legal biological father was stolen.

It is reported that one-third of the signatures on birth certificates are not those of biological fathers. House Bill 2698/Senate Bill 1777 would ensure that the actual biological father is listed on the birth certificate of a child. The Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees the child support program, is fighting vigorously to kill the bill.

What’s the motivation?

To receive $52 million in federal funding for the state’s child support enforcement programs, DHS is required to create and provide procedures for acknowledging paternity. The three means for acknowledging paternity – as spelled out by the federal government – are a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity program (VAP), a DNA test for contested cases, and marriage. Under state law, the husband in a marriage is presumed to be the father of a child.

The feds created a baseline standard of what to include in the states’ programs but don’t restrict additions to it.

Additionally, many more millions of dollars are received by states for reaching a quota of 90 percent acknowledged births, with a bonus for exceeding the quota.

Notably, for every child support order, there is a 40 percent match in federal funds earmarked for enforcement. As you can see, there are huge financial motivations to turn a blind eye to individuals blindly signing a birth certificate.

Tennessee’s VAP program shields paternity fraud by allowing unsuspecting putative fathers to blindly sign a birth certificate without DNA proof. Fraud also comes into play when those who know they are not the biological father sign a birth certificate without DNA evidence.

The definition of fraud in Tennessee is when (1) a person intentionally misrepresents an existing, material fact or produces a false impression to mislead another or to obtain an undue advantage, and (2) another is injured because of reasonable reliance upon that representation.

In fairness to DHS, there is a 60-day grace period to remove your name from a birth certificate. Also, a putative father can refuse to sign or choose to take a DNA test. There is a 5-year period during which one could go through an expensive legal process to rescind the voluntary acknowledgment of paternity. That period already had passed for the man who first told me his story.

While these remedies are available, most who could benefit are unaware of them. And, who is going to tell the new mother lying in bed with her new bundle of joy, “Hey, by the way, I want a DNA test.”

It becomes a situation of “dammed if you do or dammed if you don’t.”

Under this scenario, if the DNA results show that the man is the father, the relationship with that woman is possibly forever altered, with ramifications when attempting to raise a child together.

If the results are that the man is not the father, the relationship likely is doomed.

All of this can be remedied by simply requiring a DNA test on the front end to alleviate any challenges and emotional scarring for the child, the wrongfully accused father, the mother and the rightful biological father.

Remember, we always hear the words, “Do what’s best for the child.”

As a state, we should do just that; keep the child at the forefront and do what’s best on the front end to minimize the pain and hurt on the back end.

(Rep. Antonio Parkinson – Democrat, District 98 – can be reached at rep.antonio.parkinson@capitol.tn.gov.)


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