November 25, 2002 12:00 PM

Morgan Wise could not bring himself to open the envelope. He gave the thick letter to his wife, Beverly, who finally looked inside. When he heard her crying, Wise knew the news was bad: Results from a DNA testing lab proved that three of his four children from a previous marriage had been fathered by someone else. “I was gasping for air,” says Wise, 40, of that day in 1999. “I was crying. What man doesn’t think his own kids are his?”

Still, there was another nasty surprise. A Texas court ruled that, though he was not the biological father of the three boys, then aged 6, 8 and 10, he had to keep paying $1,100 a month in child support to his ex-wife. In January the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, leaving him baffled. “Why do I have to pay this woman who is not being held accountable?” says Wise, who would rather spend the money directly on the children. “This is wrong.”

Although the issue of single mothers struggling to support their kids without the help of deadbeat dads is certainly a more widespread problem, Wise’s case is, surprisingly, far from unique. Across the country cheaper and more reliable DNA tests are making it easier for thousands of men to ascertain the true paternity of their children. According to a survey by the American Association of Blood Banks, of 300,626 men tested in the year 2000—almost all, presumably, with reason to be doubtful about their children’s paternity—some 30 percent found out they were not related by blood to children they had thought were theirs.

It is not known just how many men are paying to help raise kids they did not father, but what is clear is that the law is not on their side. Almost all states require nonbiological fathers to keep paying child support even if they were deceived by their spouses. “This is an area in which technology has simply moved more quickly than the law,” says David Westfall, an expert in family law at Harvard. No one disputes that it is the children who suffer most, emotionally and financially, when such conflicts arise. But, says West-fall, “it does seem wrong to stick the nonbiological father [with the child support]. Someone’s going to be hurt, but why not the mother or the commonwealth?”

Currently three states have paternity fraud bills pending, and three, Ohio, Georgia and Virginia, have enacted legislation that makes it easier for duped dads to seek redress. Wise, who lives in Big Spring, Texas, says he went public with his story to try to change his state’s archaic laws. Now an engineer with Union Pacific, he married Wanda Scroggins in 1983. During their 13-year marriage she gave birth to a girl and three boys; the youngest, Rauli, was born with cystic fibrosis. After the couple divorced in 1996, Wise took a test to see which cystic fibrosis gene he carried, but no such gene was found. Further DNA testing confirmed he was not the father of any of his sons.

Wanda admits to having had affairs during the marriage but says Wise “knew all along” he might not be the father. (Wise disputes this.) In any case “the children couldn’t care less who their biological father is,” she adds. “To them he’s Dad.” Wise took his case to the media, but that backfired too. He ignored a judge’s request not to discuss the matter with his sons (who, he says, were confused by newspaper accounts) and was stripped of his rights to visit not only the boys but also his daughter Carli, 17. “If he could just let this go and be a dad,” says Wanda, “it would be great.”

Many child advocates feel that fathers like Wise should stop complaining and just pay up. Paternity fraud bills “are elevating the primacy of DNA over human relations,” says Laura Morgan, 44, chairwoman of the American Bar Association Child Support Committee. “There is more to parenting than DNA.” Paula Roberts, an attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy, favors legislation that cuts off paternity challenges two years after a child is born. “If you don’t shut down the questioning process quickly,” she says, “maybe you come up with a solution that makes the dad happy, but it’s terrible for the kids.”

It is a dilemma that deceived fathers grapple with too. Patrick McCarthy, 41, a courier-service driver from Hillsborough, N.J., had paid child support for 10 years when, he says, his ex-wife hinted their daughter was not his. During a visit in 1999, McCarthy took a swab of cells from the mouth of his daughter, then 15. “I played a trick on her,” he admits. “Some might see it as warped, but I just had to know.”

He learned he wasn’t the real father, but several lawyers told him he would have to keep paying $280 a month in child support. McCarthy did, even though he says it was a financial burden for him and second wife Susan (they have two daughters). At the same time, McCarthy cofounded New Jersey Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, which paid for nine bill-boards supporting a paternity fraud bill pending in New Jersey. “Most good men want to do what’s right for the child,” says McCarthy (who told his daughter, now 18, he still considers himself her father), “but they don’t want to be ordered to pay support.”

Not all fathers stick by their disputed kids. Dylan Davis, 32, a software engineer from Denver, took a DNA test after divorcing wife Stacey in 2000 and discovered their twins, a son and a daughter, were not his. Last year a court found no evidence that Stacey had knowingly deceived him, and Davis continues to pay $1,045 a month in child support. “I was angry,” he admits. “I wanted accountability.” This February, after a fight with Stacey about disciplining the twins, now 8, he took the drastic step of cutting off all contact with them. “I would have them every other weekend and get depressed,” he explains. “I still love them, but not like they are mine.”

Davis would like to see routine DNA tests that establish paternity at birth. “Children have a right to their genetic history,” says Margaret Ingle, 54, a Texas family-law attorney who mainly helps women collect child support but testified on behalf of Morgan Wise. “The law shouldn’t be such that it fosters fraud.”

Recently Wise, who had his visitation rights terminated, has begun spending time again with his daughter and the three sons he learned were not his. His ex-wife is okay with the arrangement but warns, “I still have legal guardianship. The minute he tries to hurt them again and tells them stuff little kids don’t need to be told, I’ll take them away and he’ll never see them again.” Even so, Wise plans to keep speaking out against paternity fraud. “If I can get the law changed,” he says, “my three sons won’t have to worry about this ever happening to them.”

Alex Tresniowski

Kevin Brass in Big Spring, Lynda Wright in New York City, Vickie Bane in Denver, Kelly Williams in Chicago and Amanda Orr in Washington, D.C.

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