I must confess that one of my guilty pleasures, the one that most embarrasses my family, is watching Maury, the daytime talk show that features DNA testing and polygraph exams.
I am fascinated by the number of married and unmarried men and women who go on that show to establish the paternity of a child. There has to be a better way to prove paternity than with TV cameras and a studio audience looking on.
And there is.
If the parents aren't married, and fatherhood is not in question, "paternity can be established at the hospital after birth or at any health department at any time and at any age," said Donna Mason, program manager of Kentucky Paternity Acknowledgement Program.
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The procedure involves the mother and father completing an affidavit that is then notarized. Without that, the father's name will not appear on the child's birth certificate. Hospital personnel are required to inform the mother of the program.
In Kentucky, minors may not establish paternity in the hospital, only at the health department, the Office of Vital Statistics in Frankfort, or the child support office in their county.
"Children born without a legal father involved in the life of the child are much more likely to grow up in poverty in the U.S., and especially in Kentucky," Mason said. "In Kentucky, 23 percent of children age 18 or (younger) live in poverty. We are trying to break the cycle of poverty by educating all unmarried parents about acknowledging paternity after birth."
Research provided by Mason from various sources indicates some interesting data:
Most of youth suicides, homeless or runaway youths, those with behavioral problems, high school dropouts, substance abusers and youth offenders are raised in poverty without a father figure in the home.
On the other hand, youth who have relationships with and financial support from both parents are less likely to use drugs, more likely to graduate high school and less likely to become involved in criminal activities or be incarcerated.
If paternity is not established, the father might not be granted visitation rights, or, if the mother cannot care for the child, he might not gain custody of the child. If the father dies, the child might not benefit from Social Security, veterans benefits or an inheritance if paternity has not been established.
I had difficulty getting my pregnant 21-year-old niece to understand that when she moved to town looking for a safe haven to give birth.
She was angry with the father and wanted nothing more to do with him, believing she could rear the child alone. She hadn't even told his family, and he hadn't, either.
It looked as if the child was headed for a life without a father or grandparents just because the parents were immature. She finally got in touch with the paternal side of her baby's family, but I don't know if the young parents established legal paternity.
Paternity was not in question in that case, but when it is, the mother can go to the local child support office for help, and DNA testing might be ordered.
There is sometimes confusion for young mothers about the extent of paternity, Mason said. Some think giving the child the father's last name is enough.
"The mother can give the child whatever name she chooses," she said. "But if the father's name is not listed on the official birth certificate, he is not legally the father."
Many young mothers assume the souvenir birth certificate given at the hospital is official. But when they try to enroll the child in school, they learn it is not.
Mason said she wanted to get the word out to new parents because of the benefits of legal paternity for the child. Her job, which is ending this week, has been to train hospital and health department personnel to provide this information to new mothers and fathers.
But cutbacks are affecting not only her job but also the jobs of those she has trained. With added responsibilities placed on fewer workers, acknowledgement of paternity might fall through the cracks.
All states are required by the federal government to have paternity acknowledgement programs, especially at birthing centers and health departments, she said. And even though the contract with the company Mason works for will end, the program will continue in the Department of Income Support with the Office of Vital Statistics.
"It is a very worthwhile program that most people don't know exists," Mason said. "Establishing paternity allows the child to have a relationship with the father and his family, giving the child a sense of identity."
The process can be started at any time, but it should be started sometime.