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Jewish World Review May 1, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Another man's child -- SHE told him he was the little girl's father, and he believed her. When the state asked him to acknowledge his paternity, he went in and signed the paper they put before him. Though scarcely more than a child himself, he understood that good men don't walk away from their children, so he paid the child support asked of him without grumbling -- 27 percent of every paycheck, right off the top. He visited "Cheryl" regularly, played with her, bonded with her. He loved his daughter and tried to be a good father.

Oh, he knew what people said. Two of the mother's friends told him that Cheryl wasn't his. Some people, observing that his daughter didn't resemble him, hinted that he was being played for a fool. But he figured the people who talked like that were just trying to bust his chops, or were having a fight with the mother, or didn't know what they were talking about. Maybe, down deep, he suspected they might be right, but couldn't bring himself to confront the mother over it. Maybe, as people often do, he simply lived with an awkward situation until it became unbearable.

Maybe he couldn't bear the thought of losing his little girl.

And so it wasn't until 1999, when Cheryl was 5, that he finally took her for a DNA test. When it confirmed that he wasn't her father, he asked to be released from child support. Now that the truth was known, he argued, it wouldn't be fair to keep making him pay for another man's child.

Last week, in a case styled "Paternity of Cheryl," the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court gave him its answer: Shut up and keep paying.

"The law places on men the burden to consider carefully the permanent consequences that flow from an acknowledgment of paternity," the court held. "He waited too long to challenge his paternity."

And what burden, you might wonder, does the law place on women? A burden to tell the truth when asked to identify a child's father? A burden not to trick a young man into forfeiting tens of thousands of dollars that he doesn't owe? A burden not to deceive the courts?

Nope, none of the above. To judge from the court's opinion, a woman like Cheryl's mother is under no obligation whatsoever. The four justices who decided this case say nothing -- not one word -- about her dishonesty, or about the immense hardship she has inflicted on an innocent man. There is no hint that they disapprove of a woman who bears a child out of wedlock, then falsely names a former boyfriend as the father so she can go on welfare.

She may have been the liar, the court seems to believe, but he is the one who is guilty -- guilty of not seizing the "opportunity to undergo genetic testing before he acknowledged paternity" and of not having "promptly challenged the paternity judgment" once he suspected he might not be Cheryl's real father. Never mind that he was only 18 at the time, a kid just out of high school. Never mind that he didn't have a lawyer or realize he needed one. Never mind that he wouldn't have known what the offer of "genetic marker testing" meant even if he *had* noticed that phrase in the fine print of the legal documents he agreed to sign.

None of that gives the justices pause because they are focused on something else.

His money.

We may not be able to force this guy to go on pretending he is Cheryl's father, says the court, "but we can protect her financial security." He may no longer feel the same affection for her, but "we can ensure that Cheryl ... is not also deprived of the legal rights and financial benefits of a parental relationship." In short, it's okay to keep ripping him off, because she needs the money.

He works in a restaurant and makes $21,000 a year, more than half of which is deducted to pay child support and taxes. He has already shelled out $25,000 to support a child he didn't father and can expect to hand over another $50,000 before she turns 18 -- and perhaps pay for her college education after that. He is so financially straitened that he cannot afford to move out of his parents' house.

But the swindle must go on, says the Bay State's highest court, because someone else needs his money. In the justices' view, he is not a wronged man with a compelling plea for relief. He is an ATM machine.

Thomas Conroy, the man's attorney, marvels that at no point throughout this case has anyone asked the mother to identify the real father. "No one seems to care who he is -- not the Department of Revenue, not the Welfare Department, not the Child Support Enforcement Division, not the courts, nobody. Nobody's asked."

The court justifies its dreadful ruling by noting that "numerous other courts" -- in Vermont, Florida, and Maryland, for example -- have done the same thing. It's true; they have. The problem has gotten so bad that a group of men have formed Citizens Against Paternity Fraud to press for relief in the state legislatures. (Web address:

But how the mighty are fallen. There was a time when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, under the leadership of jurists like Lemuel Shaw and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., was renowned for its legal brilliance, a time when it was the court other courts relied on in abandoning unworthy precedents. Today it is a follower, not a leader, hiding behind unjust decisions elsewhere to rationalize injustice of its own.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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