NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

October 1, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s an informative piece for the men of Tennessee. It’s a blog post by Tennessee attorney Kent T. Jones about how unmarried fathers are treated by the state’s family laws and how unmarried mothers are. It’s not a pretty picture.

The Tennessee child custody statutes support the mother in cases where the parents of a child are not married. An unmarried mother’s name on a child’s birth certificate is sufficient proof of her custodial rights; however, it is not the same for an unmarried father. Even if he’s named on the birth certificate, this only proves his relationship to the child; it does not assign any custody rights. A mother’s right to custody is automatic under Tennessee law, whereas the unmarried father must initiate juvenile court proceedings in order to gain custody rights.

Stated another way, being named on the birth certificate gets an unmarried man parental obligations, but not parental rights. Anyone who thought the two went hand-in-hand is now disabused of such a notion. This of course is one way in which unmarried mothers can choose which man they wish to be tagged with parental duties. If Mom neglects to mention her pregnancy to Dad, she’ll be at the hospital by herself and the nurses or Bureau of Vital Statistics personnel will take her word for it as to Dad’s identity. We see this in Title IV cases with some frequency.

Should Dad get wind of Mom’s claim that he has a child, he’s required to spend his hard-earned money to hire a lawyer, pay a filing fee, go to court and claim his rights. Mom has no such obligations. If he wishes to contest paternity, that’s his time to do so and his nickel.

Under Tennessee Code Section 36-2-303, an unwed mother automatically gains custody of her child upon birth. No legal action is necessary to assert her custodial rights. She is solely responsible for providing for the child’s needs and making decisions regarding the child’s residence, medical care and education. Unless a court-ordered custody agreement states otherwise, it is her decision whether or not the father can see the child and what part he plays in the child’s life.

As a practical matter, this means that no unmarried mother need inform the father of her child that he’s a dad. If she refused to disclose her pregnancy and broke up with him before he could figure it out for himself, as a practical matter, he has no way to assert his rights. Of course if she, at any time during the child’s life desires his support, she can get it. Never mind that she denied him a relationship with the child and the child a relationship with its father. And of course the child support he’ll be required to pay isn’t just prospective.   There’ll be a hefty lump sum of past support due and owing as well.

In that event, do Dad’s parental rights come magically into being? They do, but asserting them is another matter entirely. Since he’s never had a relationship with the child, he may be denied any access to it or, failing that, such minimal time with little Andy or Jenny as to obviate any chance at a real father-child relationship.

As I’ve said many, many times, fathers have rights, but mothers can decide whether they get to exercise them.

Tennessee’s laws on the subject of unmarried parents and their rights and duties to their children are very 19th century. They assume that Dad is a cad who heartlessly seduced and abandoned Little Nell. The reality is that women have all the inexpensive and effective reproductive choices. Moreover, those choices are, for the most part secret; a man can’t know whether his partner is actually taking the pill or not but she can tell whether he’s using a condom.

And of course, should contraception fail, women have the morning after pill, abortion and adoption to fall back on. In short, women can generally decide if and when to have a child. For men, it’s much more difficult.

Given all that, it’s remarkable that over 40% of births are to unmarried women. In the overwhelming majority of those cases, the woman didn’t have to give birth if she didn’t want to. Therefore, it’s safe to conclude that, the great majority of those births were wanted by the mother. Again, we can draw no such conclusion about the father.

Similarly, we know all too well that being born to a single mother is, for the most part, the very definition of a bad start in life. Between 33% and 40% of single mothers live below the poverty line. That means their kids do too. Children of single parents are at far greater risk of abuse and neglect than are other kids. And poverty is a major harbinger of bad outcomes for kids. Needless to say, when we add fatherlessness to poverty, a child is in real danger for a wide variety of social and personal deficits.

So we might think that sensible public policy would encourage fathers’ active participation in their children’s lives. Lower poverty rates and healthier, happier, safer children argue persuasively for exactly that. But public policy does the opposite. Laws like Tennessee’s make active paternity by unmarried fathers as difficult as possible. Why? Say, that’s a good question and one for which I have no answer.

Unlike in the 19th century, we now have a handy technique for figuring out paternity to an absolute certainty. It’s called DNA testing. If Tennessee required all babies to be tested at birth (along with the man/men identified by the mother as the father) then we’d know who every child’s father is. We could then inform Dad and, without any court involvement, automatically accord him his parental rights.

Doing so would erase the anti-male sexism currently existing in the law, it would pair vastly more babies with their true fathers, wipe out most paternity fraud and radically reduce the number of children and mothers living in poverty.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, fatherlessness is the policy of the United States and many other countries. Tennessee’s is but one example of many. That fatherlessness is so actively promoted in so many ways at a time when we know so much about its deleterious effects on fathers, mothers, children and society generally, makes it my candidate for proof positive of a dysfunctional society.

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