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Designated Dad

Right at the miracle of birth, when a new, unmarried father is dazed and proud, the state wants him to sign on the dotted line. The birth certificate? No. A form naming him legal father for future support.


Maria Martinez is never sure how the new, unwed mothers will respond to her visit. So, as the medical records technician makes her morning rounds on the maternity ward at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, she tries to make her message friendly, positive and brief.

"I'm going to give you a paternity form," she tells one mother, still dazed from childbirth. "It's just for the father to declare that he's the biological father of the baby and that he's willing to have responsibility for the baby."

Hours after birth, the mother in a fog, the father drunk with pride, what better time to step in and ask unwed parents to sign papers establishing legal paternity? Yet today, as usual, her efforts appear to be an uphill proposition.

One mother says that it sounds like a good idea but that the father wasn't expected that day: "He went camping."

Another says she thought the father might sign the paper because he was happy he finally had a girl baby. But then again, he might not because he already has to pay child support for a 6-year-old son with another woman.

These are the front lines of contemporary social work, and this is the Paternity Opportunity Program, California's struggling version of federally mandated efforts to catch unwed fathers fast and early before they disappear.

Reconnecting absent dads with their children is at the heart of current social reforms, and paternity establishment has become a popular and relatively inexpensive way to go about it. After 18 months of being implemented in all hospitals in the state, 28,000 fathers have voluntarily signed the forms that establish a legal presumption of fatherhood, according to state officials. Still, that represents only 10% of the increasing number of children born outside marriage--now one-third of all births in the U.S.

Program supporters are counting on fathers to be much more likely to acknowledge paternity in those magical hours after childbirth. If they commit then, it is hoped they will be more likely to begin a pattern of responsible parental behavior--and save the state money on child support enforcement and welfare.

Says Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Schwartz: "It's a good moment to give him the opportunity to declare himself as the father. As time passes, the relationship deteriorates, people drift apart. He begins to wonder if he was the only one."


In Los Angeles County, 51,000 of the district attorney's 730,000 child support cases are welfare cases with unknown fathers. An additional 200,000 are considered uncollectable because of insufficient information, a representative says.

In poorer communities, many fathers have become "underground fathers," afraid that public exposure will cause welfare benefits to be lost to their children, says Ed Pitt, associate director of the Fatherhood Project in New York. At the same time, similar to middle-aged, married fathers, they are looking for signals of what's truly expected of them. Typically, it's the courts, schools and hospitals that give them the message.

The POP program is one way society is showing fathers that the expectations are being raised, regardless of whether they are married or employed, says Eloise Anderson, director of the state Department of Social Services. "We need to rethink this thing about what parents are all about. We need to have a partnership," she says. "If they're not married, it doesn't mean they should not have partnerships around the children. . . .

"We know that if we have equal expectations of fathers and mothers financially, the child does better in terms of moving out of poverty. When fathers are engaged in the family financially, there is less and less of a need for the government to take over the role of what has historically been the father's role."

No one expects the program to turn casual inseminators into Bill Cosby, she says. But, "It's one more tool in the bag of tools we think we need as a society to make it better for our children."

The department's Declaration of Paternity is an official looking form in multicolored quintuplicate. It asks both mothers and fathers for their names, addresses and Social Security numbers. Under Section C ("Read This Section Before Signing"), it warns men that they will be liable for court-ordered child support, but informs them that they will also gain rights to seek custody and visitation or to agree to adoption.

Even if they sign it, the men currently have three years to challenge the form with a blood test before the declaration becomes legally binding. Pending revisions would reduce the period to 60 days.

Linda Patterson, a child support manager with the social services department, says the program is working "extremely well" nationwide but that California's results are far below the expected 35% signature rate.

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