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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Is It Nurture or Nature That Defines Who's a Dad?

June 29, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 1980s, researcher Frank Furstenburg divided fathers into two groups: "good dads" and "bad dads." The good dads were the ones who helped out around the house; the bad dads were the ones who opted out of responsibility by not marrying, divorcing or refusing to pay child support. Looking back, it seems so simple--at least most everyone understood what a father was.

Now, as a result of new court decisions tending to use science as a way to sort through the era's messiest personal conflicts, a new and more complicated division is emerging between "dads" and "not dads."

At issue is a particularly bizarre court case involving an Orange contractor, David Reese, who apparently learned during his divorce that another man had fathered the two children Reese and his wife, Rebecca, had raised during their 17-year marriage. In April, a panel of appellate court judges ruled that Reese did not have to pay child support because blood tests proved he was not the biological father of the children.

The ruling contradicted long-standing laws in California and most other states that would have assumed Reese was the children's legal father because he was married to their mother. The state Supreme Court has been asked to hear the case.

Although the case is unusual, it is just one in a string of decisions that favor biology over the original laws that aimed to provide stability for children and society, said Los Angeles attorney Ira Lurvey, chair of the American Bar Assn.'s Family Law Section. It began, he said, with the advent of increasingly accurate DNA testing and grew with the rising interest in genetic history for health reasons. "In the early days, the law would trump science. Now science is trumping the law."

The case also illuminates a fissure between two camps in the fathers' movement. While the fathers' rights groups praised the decision, the values-oriented fatherhood groups denounced it.

Victor Smith, president of the Portland-based Dads Against Discrimination, said not many men would be happy to pay child support for a child he did not "produce" or might have been tricked into thinking was his. "Many fathers get caught in this trap," he said. "California needs to have a law that would allow fathers an opportunity to verify paternity when there is a breakup."

On the other hand, Wade Horn, president of the Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative, said what's needed is a more mature attitude on the part of men and a shift in perspective on the part of judges. Severing a lifelong relationship with a father can devastate children, he said.

"Now with the breakdown of social norms about fidelity, more doubt is being introduced into the minds of fathers. Even worse, this court case introduces doubts into the minds of children. If something goes awry with the people they call Mom and Dad, that genetic testing could disenfranchise them from the man they've been calling father all their lives."

It's easy to identify a "good" dad, Horn said. That's a man who spends time, keeps his commitments and accepts responsibility for ensuring the well-being of his children.

It's more complicated to say who is, or should be, a father, he said. "These are profoundly moral questions, not technical.

"If I have to choose between defining a father who contributes sperm over one who contributes his time, there's no question the true father is the one who spends his time rearing that child."

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Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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