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David Ziskind married Sybil Hart in 1980 in Miami. After a year, they had their first child, and then a second, both of them girls. Ziskind, a psychologist, worked in Philadelphia for most of 1987. When Sybil joined him there in January 1988, she was pregnant with a third girl.
Their marriage grew rocky. In 1990 Ziskind moved out and Sybil returned to Miami. Some months later, Ziskind moved there too, so he could be close to his daughters. In 1994 the couple divorced.
The court limited Ziskind’s visiting rights to every other Sunday and two hours on Wednesday nights.
Together, his ex-wife and the court had denied him the chance to act as father to the girls. But he was still required to provide a steady flow of child support payments. In other words, his fatherhood began and ended with his wallet.
When work eluded Ziskind in Miami, he began to explore the business opportunities presented by DNA testing. Ziskind thought he could tap the growing demand for paternity tests (one of every three American children is born out of wedlock). The test is easy, requiring a little blood or saliva from both the man and the child. Each year about 250,000 men pay from $450 to $600 for a DNA test to learn if they are the fathers of the children the mothers claim they are. About one in seven is not. If the results are positive, courts regularly order the natural father to pay child support.
But what happens when the results are negative, and a man who thought he was the natural father discovers he is not?
Ziskind says he had a DNA test performed on his youngest daughter to gauge the accuracy of the procedure at a lab with which he hoped to do business. When the results returned from the lab, the report read: “The putative father named in this case was not found to possess the appropriate genetic type(s) necessary for him to be the biological father.”
Tests on his older children revealed that they, at least, were his; only the youngest was not. Someone else, Ziskind now knew, had knocked up his wife while he was working out of town. She never hinted that the child was not his, and he had had no reason to suspect otherwise.
With these test results, Ziskind asked the court to reduce his child support payments. If that sounds coldhearted, consider the fact that Ziskind lived with the youngest child for only 18 months, and, thanks to the court, had been able to see the girl only 20 times since the divorce.
The court refused Ziskind’s request. To add insult to injury, Hart asked the court to stop him from calling or seeing any of the girls. Further, she moved with the girls to Texas, where she had accepted a job. Ziskind tracked them down near Lubbock and left a phone message for his ex-wife: “Yes, I’m calling about the Ziskind children. This is David Ziskind, the putative father. Please call me and let me know where they are. Goodbye.” Ziskind’s new wife, Nadine, then took the phone: “Hey, Syb, this is Nadine, David’s wife. We’re trying to find the kids, and I’m wondering if you’re enjoying your sleep and who you’re sleeping with.” The Florida judge found these messages, which Sybil Hart saved, to be inappropriate and demanded that Ziskind “not go beyond the scope of normal parental conversations and not discuss with the children any matter relating to the issues regarding the children’s biological parentage.” The judge said he was “seeking to encourage healthy communication between the parties and their children.”
Ziskind had other plans. He began representing himself in court, saying he could no longer afford an attorney. He argued that no restrictions should be placed on his conversations with his ex-wife’s youngest daughter, saying “it is in the best interests of the children to know their biological heritage, and hiding it for so many years has had a highly detrimental impact.”
On December 10, 1998 Ziskind telephoned his ex-wife’s home. Her youngest daughter came on the line and started to talk about school. Ziskind changed the subject, saying he had some upsetting news: He wasn’t her father. Understandably, the girl took it badly. She stayed home from school and cried for three days. The girl’s mother tried to comfort her, but all the girl could say was that she wished she hadn’t found out.
When details of the phone call were published in the alternative newspaper Miami New Times, which ran a story detailing the family saga, the response from some members of the public was vicious. A letter to the editor railed: “It should be a crime when adults set out to ruin the lives of innocent children. What kind of man is David Ziskind? How can he single-handedly destroy the formative and impressionable years of the youngest child in his family? And all for what? Child support payments? How shameful it must be knowing you’ve destroyed the beautiful years of a child.”
Ziskind believed the girl would find out eventually; he thought he owed it to her to tell her first. The truth, it turned out, earned him a contempt of court charge. He served two nights in jail before he could raise bail.
How, you might ask, can a court force a man to live a lie? How can it punish a man for telling the truth?
The legal principle is centuries old: The man who acts as a father must continue to act as a father. The court will not willingly create an illegitimate child. It is not in the business of bastardy. The interests of the child always come first, whatever hardship they may bring to the legal, though not necessarily biological, father.
The common law precepts that inform paternity suits draw on the 16th century English tradition that presumes fathers are those married to the women who have birthed the children, whether or not there is evidence to the contrary. Of course, back then, evidence that a man was not the father was more limited. To prove his case, a man had to prove he was sterile, impotent or had been across the ocean at the time of conception. The law embodies the principle that families, or the appearance of a family, ought to be preserved at all costs. It also reflects the traditional notion that women ought to be protected from having their infidelities exposed in a courtroom. The fiction of the virtuous wife and saintly mother would be preserved at the cost of justice. It is an odd alliance of law and love, one that protects the innocent child, plunders the pocket of a deceived husband and rewards the errant wife with a court-ordered subsidy.
Some men have decided to fight the law. When Gerald Miscovich and his wife had a son in 1987, Miscovich never doubted his paternity, although the child was unplanned (at least in Miscovich’s mind). He and his wife had agreed to put off starting a family and used birth control. He initially questioned the pregnancy, but took his wife’s word that it had been an “accident.”
Then, one day in October 1989, Miscovich came home to find his wife had moved out with the boy and taken virtually everything from their townhouse. That night, he had to borrow a pillow to sleep on. Fourteen months later, the divorce settlement obliged him to pay child support. He could visit the boy on the weekends.
Two years later, Miscovich’s new fiancée, a nurse, pointed out that the child could not be his biological son. The reason: The boy had brown eyes. Both Miscovich and the boy’s mother were blue-eyed, a matching of recessive traits that makes siring a brown-eyed baby between them virtually impossible. DNA tests confirmed that Miscovich wasn’t the father.
“I felt betrayed,” Miscovich told a local paper, relating how he could not sleep and lost 30 pounds after learning the facts. He broke the news to the boy in 1992, when the child was four. “He had a puzzled look on his face,” Miscovich recalled. “He asked, ‘Who’s going to be my daddy?’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll have to talk to your mom about that.'”
Miscovich hasn’t seen the boy since that day. He knew if he acted in any way that showed the court he was at all attached to the boy, the court would deem him the legal father. But, legal strategy aside, for Miscovich the betrayal by his ex-wife ran too deep. “Once I had the knowledge that I was not his father, I knew I couldn’t act as his father.”
In 1992 Miscovich stopped paying child support. Two years later, his ex-wife sued another man, whom she presumably believed was the real father, in hopes he would pick up the child support bills. Tests proved he wasn’t the dad either.
That effort botched, Miscovich’s ex-wife turned her attention back to him. In May 1995, she sued Miscovich for child support. Remarkably, the judge refused to allow evidence that he was not the boy’s father and reinstated Miscovich’s child support obligation of $537 a month. His wages were garnished to enforce the ruling.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court both affirmed the judge’s decision without issuing opinions.
In the age of biotechnology, cuckoldry does not always entail an extramarital affair. Consider the odd case of Michael and Debbie Turczyn, who were married in 1991 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Over the seven years that their marriage lasted, there were repeated threats of divorce, and each of the parties sought protection orders against the other for alleged abuse. Nevertheless, the couple tried to have children, unsuccessfully. In 1994, Debbie began seeing a fertility specialist, hoping that treatment would lead to viable eggs. Michael donated the sperm.
By 1996 their marriage had worsened, and on November 15 Debbie announced she planned on filing for divorce. Two days later, her doctor called to report that several of her eggs were ready to be fertilized. Debbie went ahead with the procedure but chose not to use her husband’s sperm. On November 18 she had her doctor place an order with a sperm bank; a few days later the fertilized eggs were implanted with sperm from a 5’10”, blond, blue-eyed donor. The bill came to $294.
On November 21 Debbie filed for divorce. When she found out she was pregnant with quadruplets, Michael Turczyn objected on religious grounds to selective abortions that would have reduced the number of fetuses. As the date of the delivery approached, he helped get their home ready, hesitant to abandon Debbie with four babies on the way.
Although Debbie says she told him about the sperm donor at the time, Michael Turczyn says he did not learn he wasn’t the actual father until he discovered the charge from the sperm bank on his credit card bill.
Where paternity is concerned, no good deed goes unpunished. Turczyn’s efforts on the quadruplets’ behalf proved to the courts he was willing to assume a parental role. In Pennsylvania, if a man acts like a father, he is legally the father forever.
Debbie refiled for divorce in March 1998, this time asking for 65 percent of Turczyn’s annual $200,000 income. The court decided that Turczyn had to pay child support.
The judge ignored the issue of the anonymous sperm donor, and whether Turczyn’s wife had deceived him. Even if she had defrauded him, the state argued, he still had to pay what might amount to $2.5 million in lifetime child support. That’s not to mention the eventual bills for the quadruplets’ college education, which could easily add another million.
Go figure: Laws meant to preserve American families end up rewarding those who cheat and lie to their own.
DNA tests have freed wrongly convicted criminals from prison; it appears they do not have the power to free unfortunate males from the prison of presumed paternity.
How can be a court force a man to live a lie? How can it punish him for telling the truth?