Yes, Virginia, it is possible to be right but for all the wrong reasons. New York City Councilman Peter F. Vallone proves it in this op-ed (New York Post, 12/12/10).
Council Member Peter F. Vallone Jr. will introduce a resolution on Dec. 20 calling on Albany to enact legislation to require a father to be named on a child’s birth certificate before a mother is considered eligible to receive benefits.
First things first; there’s already federal legislation to try to get single mothers to identify the father of their child at the time she enters the hospital to give birth. In the early days of that program, what was most noteworthy was how ineffective it was. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement was notoriously unable to get mothers to give them a name. More recently, the OCSE has improved considerably, but still doesn’t get anywhere near 100% compliance.
So what Vallone is proposing is already being done to an extent. What he’s adding is the requirement that benefits (presumably those provided under the federal program Temporary Aid to Needy Families or TANF) be conditioned on the mother’s providing the name of the child’s father for recording on the birth certificate.
But Vallone at least suggests that he’s not stopping there. In his op-ed, he writes about requiring all mothers to provide the name of the father of her newborn. In short, if Vallone’s proposal is made law, every birth certificate issued by the State of New York would include a father’s name. As it is, a fair number of them have the blank for the father’s name left empty or filled in with the word “unknown.”
(Back in 2000, I asked the Health Departments of the eight most populous states to conduct computer searches of the birth certificate information for the previous 12 months and tell me how many had the father’s name omitted or recorded as “unknown.” In those states, representing over 50% of the population of the country, 15% of birth certificates had no father’s name.)
The refusal by mothers to name fathers is one of the first, easiest and most effective ways available of separating the father from his child. As Vallone recognizes, without a father’s name on the birth certificate, the state has no way to locate him and thus no way to get reimbursed for TANF payments or to obtain child support.
And of course, if the father isn’t known and his identity can’t be obtained, there’s no way to find out his medical history if the child turns up with an inherited illness or medical condition. If the father dies and his children are entitled to pension benefits or death benefits from the military or some other entity, they’ll be unlikely to be able to collect. These and other reasons for identifying the father are all explained to single mothers at the hospital in an effort to get them to give his name. But despite all the efforts and all the good reasons why they should, many, many fathers remain unnamed.
It’s one of the many ways in which mothers are allowed to decide whether fathers know about and have access to their children.
So I’m a big fan of Peter Vallone’s proposal. I’m all for it.
If all mothers had to name a father, it would be just a short step to those fathers’ being informed about their children. Chances are good the state will make them pay support and that will allow them to have a role in their children’s lives. It’ll give those fathers increased power over their relationships with their kids. It’s a small step toward giving fathers their own autonomous decision-making about who they want to be in their children’s lives.
Another thing that will happen if Vallone’s proposal is enacted into law is that paternity fraud will be reduced. Mothers who aren’t sure if little Andy or Jenny was fathered by John or Jim will be forced to name one of them. That’ll give him the opportunity to contest the matter and, to a greater extent than currently, the correct father will learn about his child. Again, such a law will help men be the deciders of their relationships with their own children. John won’t be raising Jim’s kid and Jim will know about his kid and have an opportunity to raise it. That’s not always true now.
So Vallone’s got a good idea and I hope his proposal succeeds.
Now Vallone himself, I’m not so enthusiastic about. He engages in all the stereotypes of deadbeat dads to make his case. He even seems at one point to be under the impression that, in some way, it’s up to a dad whether his name is on the birth certificate or not.
Unmarried fathers can get away with not including their names on birth certificates — making it easier to stay completely out of their children’s lives, especially financially.
The stereotypes that apparently make up the totality of Vallone’s conception of single fathers have been known to be wrong for many years now and the data generated by the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study continue to debunk them to this day. So I’m not too impressed with the basis for his proposal.
And the idea that a single father has much to say about whose name, if anyone’s, gets put on the birth certificate is pure fantasy. If he knows about the child and if he’s at the hospital at the time of birth and if the mother agrees that he’s the dad, then his name will be recorded. Otherwise, it won’t be. The decision to record a father’s name is hers, not his.
So Vallone gets it right, just for all the wrong reasons. Still, whatever his motivations, I hope he wins.