DON’T give Jack his jacket

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By Jarid Hewlett

Attorney at Law

          This afternoon, I was invited on Observer Radio’sBig Issues to give my thoughts on the recent story about the man that alleges that he has been disputing paternity for 15 years, only to finally be given a test this month, which proved that the child was not his. Although that story is what spurred the discussion, we did not discuss that specific case, as no one knows the full story of what happened there. Our segment was only 40 minutes long, and had three guests, myself included, so unfortunately we were unable to have an in-depth discussion on all the issues surrounding paternity. I’d like to complete my thoughts here instead; because it’s a topic I personally feel very strongly about; and I think it touches on a number of very important issues in our society.

            On the show, I shared my “radical” view that I believe that paternity testing should be mandatory for every birth in Antigua and Barbuda regardless of marital status. That’s apparently a very controversial view. Why? It’s controversial because in our society, paternity testing carries a stigma. Most people see it as an indictment of the mother, and an implication that she has been unfaithful or promiscuous. It also carries the stigma that the father does not trust or believe her. I don’t believe that this stigma is valid, nor do I believe that it has any place in a modern society. When women give birth, they have absolute CERTAINTY that their child is theirs. I simply believe that men should have that certainty too; and given that men cannot give birth; paternity testing is the only way men can have CERTAINTY that our child is ours.

          We have ALL heard of at LEAST one story about someone who was thought to be the father, and later found out that he wasn’t. In fact, Maury Povich has an entire television show dedicated to that phenomenon.  It’s not a rare occurrence. It’s not a once in a blue moon occurrence. It’s something that exists in our society and has existed for years; and we’re all well aware of it. We have no statistics about that here in Antigua, but in Jamaica, one DNA testing company released its statistics and found that since they began operations in 2015, seven out of every ten tests revealed that the purported father was in fact not the child’s father. That’s a “jacket” rate of 70%. I’m fully aware that that statistic is not indicative of Jamaica’s “jacket” rate on a whole, nor indicative of Antigua’s. (I personally disagree with the position that Jamaica has a “jacket culture” as that phenomenon is not unique to Jamaica nor Jamaicans, but that’s a conversation for another day). That high rate may very well be due to the fact that persons only go to get a paternity test when there are serious doubts about paternity. The point is, we know it happens, and it happens with some frequency.

            What happens when a man is put in the position to father a child that isn’t his, and then finds out years later? Many things. For one, our law puts the interest of the child as the paramount concern. Therefore, even if someone takes a paternity test and it turns out that he is not the father; in the eyes of the law, their obligation remains (until someone else can be put in their place). While this may seem unfair to most people, you have to remember what I just said about the law. The interest of the CHILD is the paramount concern. Does it benefit the CHILD to take the man that has been paying for his/her expenses for the last few years out of the picture? No. That would mean that the child’s needs are not being met, and the law directs the courts to avoid that. Some of you might say, as the exonerated ‘former father,’ “well that’s rough, but it’s not my business.” Unfortunately, if you have been performing the role of father, in the eyes of the law and the court, it IS your business, unless the biological father is found and put in your place. As a matter of fact, our Divorce Act makes provision for women to seek child support from stepfathers.

           Imagine raising a child that you think is yours, and spending thousands of dollars on that child’s expenses, only to find out that the child is not yours. Apart from the obvious financial hardship, can you imagine the pain of forming a bond with “your” son/daughter, only to find out that he/she is not yours? That pain must be horrific. Apart from the hardships faced by the man, imagine the child. The innocent child, who has loved this man as his/her father for years. Now has to contend with the fact that he is not his/her father, and he has removed himself from his/her life. Can you imagine the impact that that would have on that child? From the teasing of other children, to the identity issues etc. the negative impact is extremely great.

           When a man is given a “jacket” and later finds out, what recourse does he have? Very little. Unless you can prove the mother KNEW you were not the father, and committed a fraud, you have no legal recourse against her. You cannot sue the court (if judges/magistrates were personally liable for mistakes, no one would agree to be a judge/magistrate. That’s why we have an appeals system to fix mistakes). You MIGHT be able to sue the rightful father, but even that course of action would most likely cause some difficulty. In any event, we’re talking about legal fees and court dates, and all of that. Does that sound like justice to you? It doesn’t to me. So the reality of the situation is that if a man finds himself as the wrongful father to a child he’s raised for years, society’s response to his plight is “that’s rough” and everyone goes about their day.

            Given that what I’ve just described is the reality of the consequences for men caught in that situation, what then is the argument AGAINST mandatory testing? The main opposition I hear, mostly from women, is that it’s “disrespectful.” To subject a woman to a paternity test, it is argued, is tantamount to accusing her of infidelity or promiscuity. We men should “trust” that the children they say are ours, are ours. If we’re unwilling to do so, then we’re the scum of the earth for questioning their integrity. Let me ask women this, by way of analogy. Let’s say that at birth, due to the medical apparatus in the delivery room, you were unable to see your child. You deliver your baby, your doctor takes your baby and carries it to the “baby room” that contains hundreds of other babies. There is no name tag or any other identifying apparatus that goes onto your baby. This is a doctor you’ve been going to since 12 years old (you’re 30), she’s a close family friend, and you trust her implicitly. The next day, your doctor brings your child to you and gives you this caveat: “I’m positive that this is the child you delivered yesterday. However, as with all things, the POSSIBILITY exists that I may have picked up the wrong baby. Doctors have been known to deliberately or accidentally give persons the wrong baby with some frequency, but I wouldn’t do that to you. We can do a test to ensure that this baby is yours before you take it and leave, or you can just trust that I have given you the correct baby.” How many mothers would be comfortable NOT doing the test to have that CERTAINTY? My guess is, not many.

          Yet, somehow, men are expected to dedicate our lives to this new child entirely on trust. That view is outdated and illogical. When paternity testing didn’t exist, we did not have a choice. We do now. I take the point that there are cost considerations involved, but my answer to that is that delivering a baby at Mount St. John’s Medical Centre at present carries a cost. Nobody has a baby in Antigua & Barbuda for free. Whatever that cost is (to involve the necessary medical tests the mother has to undergo), I simply believe that paternity testing should be included in that. We all pay towards the Medical Benefits Scheme, and whatever procedures that scheme covers, paternity testing at birth for all babies, should be included.

           The reason I believe it should apply to married and unmarried couples is because your wedding ring is not a magical band of immunity from infidelity. Is there any grown, sensible adult in Antigua and Barbuda that believes that married persons are INCAPABLE of infidelity? No. So as with any person, married or unmarried, the POSSIBILITY (no matter how remote) that a child born may not be the man’s, exists. Without mandatory testing, each man/couple has to request a test on their own accord, attracting all the stigma I mentioned earlier. If you’re married and you know your children belong to your husband, what harm is occasioned to you by having a routine test done to confirm that? If you’re a husband and you’re sure beyond all reasonable doubt that your children belong to you, what harm is occasioned to you by having a routine test done to confirm that? The stigma exists because testing is NOT routine. It is EXCLUSIVELY only used in contested, acrimonious court battles between former romantic partners who loathe each other. Making it routine would get rid of that stigma.
       The way I see it; on one hand, we have my perspective: All babies should be tested at birth to avoid forcing men to REQUEST a paternity test; and in so doing, remove the stigma attached to such testing, and greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility of someone wrongfully being claimed as father, (and all the hardship and pain that comes with that). On the other hand, we have the opposing perspective that: Women will feel offended. That’s not an equal consideration in my opinion. One hand clearly has weightier and more important interests and consequences than the other (and it isn’t the hand with the feelings).

      “Jackets” are not a new phenomenon. Men unknowingly being made to be the father of children they did not birth is something that happens with some frequency. The pain, anguish and hardship that that causes for men and children, is obvious and easy to see. Mandatory paternity testing of all children at birth would greatly reduce the instances of this happening. This issue isn’t about trust, nor is it about women’s reputations. I have a child with a wonderful woman, and I have absolutely NO doubt that that adorable little girl is mine. So much so, that I’ve happily signed her birth certificate and paid my portion of all the expenses related to her. Her mother is someone I have great respect for, and is someone I consider to be of the highest moral character. Yet still, I fully intend to obtain a certificate of paternity, because I am of the view that just as her mother has CERTAINTY; even with my strong belief and conviction that she is my daughter, I should have that CERTAINTY too. People who oppose this perspective make it into a matter of trust/respect (and given the fact that EVERY man that has been given a jacket “trusted” that it was his child, and respected the mother in their role as mother of his child), I don’t think that trust/respect is what paternity should be determined by in the year 2021. I stand firmly (albeit mostly alone) in my belief that EVERY man should be provided with that certainty of parenthood, and both men and women should be free of that outdated and backwards stigma that attaches itself to paternity tests.

           The colloquial phrase “Give Jack his jacket” means to give credit where it’s due. A “jacket” is also the colloquial term for giving a man a child that isn’t his. So, to mix and match those two to create an idiom to suit the topic at hand… DON’T give jack his jacket.

Thoughts and views expressed in guest opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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