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Costa Rica Lays Down Law for Deadbeat Dads

Paternity: Men are assumed responsible unless DNA tests prove otherwise.


SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Maria Jimenez doesn't seem like she would have the energy to be part of a legal revolution.

She's a single mom, living in a poor town about two hours outside this sleepy capital. She has four kids, no job and no husband.

But Jimenez has seized on a controversial new law here that gives her the upper hand in winning child support from the man who she believes is the father of her children.

"My children have the right to know who their father is," said Jimenez, 32.

The law, which came into effect March 2001, is believed to be the first of its kind in the world. It allows a mother to name the father of the child in a simple administrative process that begins in the hospital's birthing room. The man is asked to submit to a DNA test; if he does not agree, he is assumed to be the father, with the duty to pay child support.

The test is legally binding, though the man can appeal the results in court. The entire process is free.

This procedure contrasts dramatically with the nation's former paternity system, which was similar to the ones in effect in most of the U.S. and nearly every other Western country. In those systems, paternity is determined through court hearings that can take years and cost thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees.

Since its inception last year, more than 8,000 Costa Rican women have taken advantage of the new law. A preliminary study shows that the number of newborns whose fathers' names are not declared in the country's civil registry has dropped from 30% to about 10%.

"We think it's revolutionary," said Maria San Roman, director of the clinical laboratory at the country's largest public hospital, which performs the DNA tests.

The law had plenty of detractors. Many legislators feared that it would prove too costly because the state pays for the tests. This year, the lab will spend about $700,000 -- a significant amount in a country with an annual budget of about $2 billion.

Others feared that it would enable poor women to take advantage of rich men by naming them as fathers. There were worries that notorious lotharios would be hit with dozens of requests for DNA tests.

And some lawmakers had philosophical objections. Only women can force DNA tests under the law. A man has no right to force a DNA test if he suspects a woman of having borne another man's child.

If a man denies that he is the father, he automatically sacrifices paternal rights, such as visitation. But in absence of DNA exoneration, he still has a duty to pay child support, and if he wants his full paternal rights restored, he must petition the court.

"The law is not proportional. The father is left out," said Federico Malavassi, the vice president of the legislature who opposed the law. "It's vindictive."

But the legislation's supporters -- a coalition of women's groups--say the law has many safeguards to discourage abuse. For instance, women who falsely accuse men of fathering children can face civil prosecution.

The government lab has begun taking blood samples from couples and children, and initial results show that women named the wrong men in 10% of cases.

Women's groups said the new law was needed because the old paternity system was open to abuse. First, few women used it, because it took an average of three years to process a case, resulting in lawyers' fees that few could afford.

Second, men, knowing that they had nothing to lose, often fiercely fought the paternity suits.

"The thought of child support is like a boogeyman for men here," said Montserrat Sagot, a sociologist who specializes in gender studies at the University of Costa Rica. "They have no vision of being committed to a woman or to the children they father."

The push for the law came after Costa Rica's then-first lady, Lorena Clare de Rodriguez, became alarmed at the rising number of illegitimate children born in the country. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of children born without declared fathers rose from 21% to 30%.

The issue is more important than simply avoiding the stigma of being labeled a bastard. Children who have a father listed in the nation's registry automatically receive rights to inheritance, social security benefits and child support, regardless of whether the mother is married to him.

"Everything is easier if they have their father's last name," said Jimenez, who is still waiting for an appointment to take the DNA test with the presumed father of her 3-month-old, Monica.

But Costa Rican officials believe that the law might do more than simply help ensure economic support for fatherless children. They also hope that men will be more aggressive in using birth control. Even more, officials hope that the process will persuade men to be better fathers.

"The idea is not only that the child gets economic support," said San Roman, the clinic director. "It's also that maybe the child can receive paternal love and care."

The initial results have given officials some encouragement.

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