Pop Quiz

It began, as all marriages must, with trust and hope, and ended, as all too many do, in resentment and suspicion. Their story begins in 1983, when Ron and Anne met through a mutual friend in college and agreed to go out on a date.

"We didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things," Ron recalls. "We weren't compatible at the time. She was very stubborn, very opinionated." They both seemed to sense it. The date didn't amount to anything, and the two went their separate ways. Anne married the following year; Ron continued to play the field, dating a number of women, though none seriously.

Four years later, tragedy brought Ron and Anne together again at a small Catholic church in east Denver, where they were both attending the funeral of their college matchmaker.

The couple talked, catching each other up on the gap in time since they'd parted. Anne's marriage hadn't lasted. Her husband had had a relationship with drugs that she couldn't compete with, and so they'd divorced after only a couple of years. Yet Ron noticed that the marriage -- or something -- had provoked a change in her. "She seemed to be a different person," he says. "We didn't clash like before. She was very cordial and nice, not as bullheaded as before."

After the reunion, Ron remembers, "she called me on a number of occasions, and about two weeks later we started dating. I allowed myself to get caught." They attended movies, concerts, plays. "At the time, I wanted to be married, and she wanted to be married, too. With the change in attitude, I thought it might work," he says. The ceremony was held in June 1988.

They didn't discuss children, although it was implied that the family would grow. Anne already had a daughter from her first marriage. Ron came from a large family, fifth out of eight children. "I never wanted a big family," he says. "But some kids, sure." He felt strongly that his job as the manager of a convenience store was not stable enough to support a brood just yet. On good nights, they would discuss names of their future children. He wanted a boy to call Ronald; she joked that it sounded too old-fashioned.

It wasn't long, though, before the good nights became fewer and farther apart. Ron says the tension started when Anne began going out to clubs and bars without him and staying out later than was appropriate for a married woman. He says that when he complained, she grew defensive. "You're not my dad," she'd say. "You can't tell me what to do." Sometimes she wouldn't return until four or five in the morning. (Anne declined to be interviewed for this story. Her name and her husband's name were changed to protect their family's privacy. Last week, at the request of Anne's attorney, Edra Pollin, the couple's court file was sealed. )

They had mutual friends, particularly at their church, and people talked. Ron knew that his wife seemed to run into a particular acquaintance at the clubs an awful lot, and he heard the rumors that the friendship between Anne and the other man was more than casual.

Finally, Ron says, one night in November 1990, he confronted Anne after she'd defended the man a little too vehemently in an argument. "I said, 'Baby, I need to talk to this guy myself.'" He went to the man's house and waited, and when the man finally came home, Ron asked him straight up: Are you sleeping with my wife? The man denied it, and the two never saw each other again.

Anne became pregnant in the summer of 1990, and the following March, a daughter was born. Throughout the pregnancy, Ron says, "she was telling me that the child was mine, and so I eventually decided she was telling the truth."

At the birth, he held the baby, still wet from the womb, and when the doctor asked him to cut the umbilicus, he grasped the child's legs with one hand and cut the cord with the other. "It was truly amazing," he says. "Life itself."

The Analytical Genetic Testing Center sits in the far back corner of a difficult-to-find southeast Denver business park, one of those featureless commercial strips that seem to be actively seeking anonymity. It is surrounded by generic-sounding businesses with names such as Client Systems. "We don't necessarily like to advertise where we are," says Nancy Schanfield, the center's administrator.

A plaque in the office's tiny waiting area, awarded by the Crime Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, indicates that the Analytical Genetic Testing Center is "Dedicated to Accuracy, Precision and Specificity." A posted list of the center's clients shows a handful of Colorado counties, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the San Francisco Crime Lab and the Dubai police.

Inside, beyond a couple of small offices and a conference room, the lab opens up into a single white room that seems somehow both too small and too uncluttered for the emotionally vast work that goes on there. One section of the space is devoted to forensic testing -- the evaluation of genetic samples from crime scenes. The rest of the space is devoted to figuring out who a child's parents are.

Ever since the center began doing paternity testing, in 1985, business has increased steadily. In 1990, the Analytical Genetic Testing Center performed ninety tests. Last year it did 1,020. The biggest increase came in 1993, when the center won the business of the City and County of Denver's Department of Social Services. Because every effort is made to find a father in the thousands of child support cases it handles each year, Denver's business alone would keep the testing center hopping.

Such government work makes up the bulk of the center's non-forensic business. However, parents and children bring in blood samples for all sorts of reasons. Some parents want to know if they've passed on a medical condition to their kids. "One father brought in his little baby for testing because he said she was so cute he couldn't actually believe she was his," Schanfield says. "He was happy to learn she was." The oldest child the center has tested was a 57-year-old man. His father had died recently, and he wanted to know if the man was really his parent.

In the past ten years, the exclusion percentage -- the number of tests showing that the presumed father actually was not -- has stayed about the same, somewhere between 27 and 33 percent. This parallels national statistics: Affiliated members of the American Association of Blood Banks performed 280,000 paternity tests in 1999, the last year for which figures are available; in about 28 percent of those, the man being tested was shown not to be the father. While the sample population is skewed -- most parents who ask for testing have at least a private suspicion -- it is nonetheless an astounding number.

The technology used to read parents' and children's shared genetic roadmaps has improved tremendously in the past decade. In 1985, a paternity test could guarantee a 90 percent rate of probability. Today, most tests are somewhere around 99.9 percent conclusive -- a margin of error so slim as to be practically nonexistent.

Blood is the preferable agent for testing, although a cheek swab will work in a pinch. (Hair strands don't work because the cells in them are passed down only from mother to child, thus leaving no evidence of paternity.) First the blood is separated into its basic components of plasma, red blood cells and white blood cells. The pure DNA is extracted from the white cells when they are placed in a reagent that dissolves the coating around the genetic code -- like removing the candy outside to get to the inside of a Tootsie Pop.

Next, the DNA is placed in a machine that essentially photocopies its unique patterns. The multiple copies of the genetic code allow the testers to focus on the exact locations they need to study in order to determine a child's and parents' common biological landmarks.

Each strand of genetic coding carries more than 30,000 genes, far too many to sort out which came from a particular parent. Also, many genes are common to everyone -- for example, the gene that determines how a person's heart develops. So testers hoping to prove a family connection focus on about a dozen known as "nonsense genes," those that have no visible genetic expression in a person -- blond hair, say, or straight teeth -- but that nevertheless carry biological clues to a person's individuality.

From there the process is relatively low-tech, despite the modern science that goes into it. A snapshot of the child's, mother's and alleged father's genetic codes are lined up next to each other in vertical columns, with the child's in the middle column. Since the child inherits from both mother and father, the mother and child's shared markers -- which show up as small horizontal lines -- are crossed out.

That leaves the child and the alleged father. If the child and the man have no markers in common, he is eliminated as a possible father. If the two share a marker, the testers next go to a database that shows how common the marker is in each ethnic or racial group. The rarer the marker, the greater the probability that the child and father are related. The more common it is, the greater the need for additional tests at different genetic sites. The testing center keeps two statisticians on staff to do the math.

For testers who do it every day, the ordinary, inventory-style nature of the business can obscure the all-too-human stories behind the tests. Some of the tests performed at the lab are sweeping social policy writ small. Analytical Genetic Testing, for example, does substantial work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service as part of that agency's attempts to limit the number of people moving into the country.

An immigrant trying to help a relative relocate permanently to the United States has a better shot at succeeding if that relative is a mother or father versus, say, a brother or sister. (There are different standards for different countries; the INS requires a DNA test for Ethiopians merely flying here for a visit.) Many desperate -- or simply less-than-honest -- sponsors are willing to lie about their family ties, and the INS wants to know for sure before it issues another green card.

Domestic policy shows up in the center's tests, too. In its quest to nudge public behavior, the federal government provides plenty of business for labs such as Schanfield's. For example, the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 -- more commonly known as welfare reform -- requires states to offer fathers of children born out of wedlock a chance to acknowledge paternity of the new infant while the baby is still in the hospital. This was an effort mainly to bolster child-support payments. Later challenges to such signed paternity agreements are common, and they keep DNA testing labs humming.

Similarly, says Pauline Burton, director of Colorado's division of child-support enforcement, in an effort to better collect support payments, the federal government keeps track of how well each state establishes the paternity in its child-support enforcement cases. But the counting is not done merely out of curiosity. If a particular state does not finger the father in better than 90 percent of its cases, Washington begins cutting off funds as a punishment. Such a harsh approach inspires still more paternity tests.

Yet many tests performed at the lab are merely small, private stories that hint of personal tragedy or fantastic familial complexity. The ten-year-old girl whose aborted fetus was tested so that prosecutors could prove a case of incest. The family of seven children whose mother, on her deathbed, revealed that not all of the siblings shared the same father. Now in their forties and older, they came to the lab thinking one of them had a stranger for a dad. Instead, testing revealed three different fathers.

For the lab employees, such news is like headlines from the National Enquirer -- startling, even lurid, yet without the substance and context that fleshes out the lives behind the muddled genes. And despite the high-probability numbers and sound scientific principals that form the bedrock of the business, the human details of the stories themselves almost always remain mysteries.

What, for example, to make of the man whose genes keep popping up in paternity cases in one rural Colorado county? Or the woman who needed seven brothers tested because any one of them could have been the father of her child? Or the father who knew for certain that the first and second children of his marriage were his, but wondered about the third and so arranged for genetic screening? (Testing proved that only the second was his.)

The answer, say testers, is that science is only one fractional measure of a family. "Families are far more complicated than anyone thinks," says Schanfield. "We simply provide the difference between belief and knowledge."

"DNA doesn't lie," adds Carla Wirtz, director of The Laboratories at Bonfils/Parentage Testing Laboratory, Colorado's only other accredited paternity-testing facility. "I tell my clients, we can prove you're the father." "But," she continues, "that is all. DNA says nothing about who is a parent -- who is raising the child, taking him to school, changing his diapers, teaching him morals. That has nothing to do with genetics."

As Ron and Anne's daughter grew, their life became a familiar mixture of pleasure and problems, satisfaction and strife. "We were like a normal family," Ron explains. Both he and Anne had settled into good, lucrative jobs, each earning close to $40,000 a year. They bought a nice house in Aurora.

They also seemed willing to let personal bygones be bygones. Anne had finally admitted to sleeping with her acquaintance, but she'd also assured Ron that the affair was over. Ron promised that he'd forgiven her. As far as their daughter was concerned, he says, "The tension that had been there wasn't anymore because I had resigned myself that she was my child."

Nevertheless, the partnership was also growing unsettled. Six months after their daughter was born, Ron says, the couple ceased being intimate. "She didn't love me like a wife loves a husband," he says. "Eventually, I stopped trying to have sex."

Ron himself was not blameless. In early 1991, while Anne was pregnant, he had let his doubts about her fidelity consume him until he'd secretly started seeing another woman. "In my mind, I'd said, 'What's good for you is good for me,'" he recalls. Six months after Anne gave birth to their daughter, Ron's girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy.

By the end of 1991, Ron says, he had called off the relationship, telling the woman he wanted to try to make his marriage work. However, the damage had already been done. The woman telephoned Anne and told her about Ron's son.

In spite of their shattered trust, Ron and Anne decided to follow the advice of their minister and remain married. "We stayed together through the help of a lot of prayer," Ron explains. "And by overlooking a lot of obvious problems."

From all outward appearances, they were an intact, traditional family: Ron and Anne and their two daughters. They vacationed together, taking a cruise to the Bahamas as well as trips to Disney World and to Texas to visit relatives.

And despite the currents of dissatisfaction between husband and wife, Ron and his younger daughter seemed able to separate themselves from the stress. They were extremely close. He bought her clothes; she helped him around the house. "She was daddy's baby," he says. "A real daddy's girl."

It is old news by now that American families today bear little resemblance to what they once were -- or, perhaps more accurately, to what people once thought they were. The 2000 Census showed a 72 percent jump in the number of unmarried couples over just a decade ago. Today, barely half of all households are headed by married couples. The traditional Ozzie and Harriet configuration -- a married couple with children -- makes up less than one-quarter of all households, down from about 40 percent a mere generation ago.

With the number of married couples dropping and the number of unmarried couples rising, it is no shock that the number of children born outside of marriage is up. In 1999, 1.3 million infants were born out of wedlock. Almost a fifth of all white children in the U.S. are born into unmarried households; among blacks, the number is closer to two-thirds.

Not that marriage guarantees the identity of a child's parents -- although the law generally presumes that a child born into a marriage is living with his real parents. Yet the reconfiguration of the family has, at the least, reformed the traditional definitions of its participants. Just as "family" now has multiple meanings, many of which probably could not have been envisioned several generations ago, so, too, does the word "father."

Start with the thirty-year-old Colorado law, filed under "Presumption of Paternity." Following centuries of law and tradition, it leans strongly toward married couples and tries to define what it calls the "natural" parents. "A man is presumed to be the natural father of a child if he and the child's natural mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born during the marriage," it begins.

However, with the shape of families ever shifting, the exceptions and permutations have begun to pile up. What, for instance, about cases in which the real parent isn't a parent at all?

In one ten-year-old divorce case out of Denver, judges had to decide whether a step-parent should be granted visitation of a child after a divorce. In saying 'yes,' the state Court of Appeals noted that the step-parent had, in effect, become the child's "psychological" parent -- not related to the child, but important enough in her life to continue acting as a parent. (Such a designation has become important in separation cases involving gay couples raising a child, as only one of the parents can by definition be biologically related to the child.)

Another Colorado case that has further defined "father" grew out of a recent Fort Collins-area probate filing. The biological father died, leaving his estate to his wife and son. When the wife began misusing the inheritance, the trustee of the young boy brought the case to court. After listening to arguments on both sides, the judge finally turned over the estate to a neighbor who had become extremely close to the boy. The man, the court decided, had become a "father figure."

The definitions can be parsed almost infinitely. One section of Colorado's law attempts to describe under what circumstances a "psychological parent" -- a non-biological parent -- can ask a judge for custody of a child.

Until a couple of years ago, the law gave a person standing if the child had been under his "physical custody" for at least six months. In recent years, local courts have had to decide what is actually meant by the words "physical custody." For example, how much of the six months was actually "quality time"? The law now reads that the child must be in the adult's "physical care" for half a year for the person to be eligible for custody -- a subtle but crucial distinction.

By the end of 1998, Ron and Anne's marriage was a partnership in name only. He says they hardly ever had sex. Once in a while, he says, he'd suggest counseling. She refused to consider it.

The end came in January 1999, when, Ron says, Anne asked him to move out of their shared bedroom and into a downstairs room. The following month, he left the house altogether. Not long after that, the couple filed for divorce.

In June 2000, Ron and Anne reached a temporary arrangement for custody and support of their children. The girls were to remain with Anne at the couple's old house; Ron was to have "reasonable and liberal parenting time." He also agreed to pay $777 per month, in two equal installments, to help Anne cover the girls' expenses.

Despite the agreement, however, with what little marriage they'd had now broken, old doubts about his daughter's lineage began replaying in Ron's mind. "I'd asked Anne on numerous occasions: 'Is there something you should be telling me?' And she'd always say no," he says.

Their daughter's increasingly grown-up features didn't help matters. At first friends had remarked how much she looked like Ron. As time went on, more and more people began talking about how she looked more like Anne's acquaintance than Ron.

Last June, as part of the divorce proceedings, Ron finally requested a paternity test. Anne resisted, arguing that there was no reason for the test. "The parentage of the parties' younger daughter is not at issue in this case," she argued in a court filing. In support of the argument, Anne's lawyer cited the basic Colorado paternity law that says a child born into a marriage is presumed to be the issue of that husband and wife.

Arapahoe County District Court Judge Juanita Rice agonized over what to do. Rice noted that "there are many reasons not to" do the test. For example, she wrote, "The impact on [the daughter] in learning that [Ron] is not her father could be very traumatic."

But, she added, "The Court notes that the law does not allow it to always do what is right. If the Court were only looking at [the daughter's] best interest, it might be that the pain of knowing who her father is would be greater than having her live in deceit."

Rice also acknowledged that "if this issue is not raised in [the daughter's] childhood, her paternity may be raised in her adulthood in an unloving way." So, this past August, the judge ordered Anne and the daughter to submit to DNA testing. "The Court believes the Uniform Parentage Act has as one of its goals that children know who their parents are and parents know who their children are," the judge wrote in her decision. "This knowledge is necessary for an orderly society."

In the event that another man was found to be the girl's father, Rice added, she would appoint a special representative to "deal with the issues of when [the daughter] is told, how she is told and how she will be supported by therapy during the process."

Ron paid for the test. Two weeks later, he had the results: There was literally no statistical chance that he could be his daughter's biological father. "There were no tears," he says. "Just a lot of hurt and disbelief." Further tests confirmed that Anne's acquaintance was in fact the father of Ron and Anne's youngest child.

Despite that knowledge, Anne has continued to insist that Ron pay child support to the girl he thought was his daughter. (Meanwhile, the real father -- Anne's acquaintance -- has said he wants nothing to do with his newfound daughter.)

Ron, who says he has no qualms about paying child support for Anne's older daughter, whom he legally adopted early in the marriage, has fought back. The girl's father, he argues, should start supporting his daughter. And he points out that he, too, is in "the other man's" shoes.

"I see my son only a couple times a year, but I'm paying support for him," he says. "Why shouldn't the father here pay, too?"

Although there are many small, specific reasons a man might argue over whether he is a child's parent, the issues generally boil down to two things: Time and money. The former, often described in terms of "custody" and "visitation," usually is associated with a father's rights -- the privileges one enjoys as a parent. The latter, known as "support," is more usually described in terms of a man's responsibilities -- those things that he accepts.

Traditionally, the father's rights and responsibilities have been lumped together: Part of being a decent parent, the old argument goes, is paying the bills. Another legal given, strengthened by the government's resolve to shrink the country's welfare roles by getting fathers to pay child support, has been that the biological father always pays for his child. Finally, most judges have agreed that once a father legally acknowledges a child is his -- regardless of any new DNA evidence that may crop up -- he is, in the eyes of the court, the father forever.

Yet in a growing number of cases across the country, these age-old principles have clashed. In a well-known Texas case, for instance, a man named Morgan Wise recently discovered that only one of four children born during his marriage was biologically his. The couple divorced five years ago. Yet, despite the new genetic evidence, a district court judge ordered Wise to continue paying child support to all of the children -- and then prevented him from seeing them.

In Colorado, two new cases are poised to redefine traditional paternity laws. One of them started in Pueblo nearly five years ago. After many years of marriage and three children, Donald and Loretta Smith filed for divorce. When custody and parenting time became an issue, Donald asked for genetic testing. The results shocked him: None of the three children were his.

Later, the father of the kids was identified as Charles Ames, a man with whom Loretta had carried on a long-term affair. In 1997, Donald Smith demanded to be reimbursed by Ames for all the money he'd spent raising three children whom Ames had fathered. In October 1999, the state Court of Appeals agreed that Ames owed Smith the money and ordered him to pay. The amount -- about $20,000 in all -- was nowhere near the cost of raising three children. But a precedent had been set.

Not everyone was pleased. In a dissenting opinion, one of the judges worried that too much emphasis was being placed on biology. "Smith maintains that once Charles Ames' paternity was established by scientific testing and that Ames was declared to be the biological father by the court, Smith's previous status as the presumed father--with all of its attendant rights and obligations -- vanished retroactively," the judge wrote. "This issue has major ramifications for Colorado's children."

Even more recently, another case has been shaking up the state's long-established paternity principles -- but with a different message. In June 1994, a girl known only by her initials, S.R.H., was born to a husband and wife, N.A.H. and A.H. of Fort Collins. The husband watched the girl be born and was listed on her birth certificate as her father.

N.A.H. and A.H. had endured a shaky twenty-year marriage. On occasion, the wife had moved out. In fact, unknown to the husband, it was during one of the separations that the girl had been conceived. Later -- also unknown to the husband -- the mother had maintained contact with the biological father, known as S.L.S. On some Fridays, she dropped their daughter off at his house for up to ten hours at a time while she worked. Once, S.L.S. took the girl out of Colorado to visit his relatives.

Following marriage counseling, N.A.H. and A.H. reconciled in early 1996. S.L.S.'s contact with his daughter was cut off entirely. Soon after, he filed a case with the local court arguing that since he was the girl's biological father, he had a right to see her. (According to Mark Workman, the lawyer who represented S.L.S., the husband found out the girl was not his only after stumbling on S.L.S.'s case while in the courthouse on an unrelated matter.)

In 1997, a local magistrate, citing biology, declared S.L.S. to be the legal father of the girl. "The Court acknowledges that [the husband] is and will continue to be an excellent and committed parent," the magistrate wrote. "However, this is not a case in which the Court is to select which male will do a better job of being the father of the child. [The biological father, S.L.S.] is not just a sperm donor. He has shown that he wishes to be actively involved in the child's life."

After several appeals by the husband and wife, the case made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court. There, this past September, the judges disagreed with the local magistrate. The justices noted that while there were various competing definitions of "father" contained in numerous state laws, none was necessarily better than another. Thus, they wrote, "the best interests of the child must be considered as part of the policy and logic analysis used to decide legal fatherhood."

While the formula sounds reasonable -- everyone agrees that the best interests of the child are of the highest importance in any custody case -- Workman says the result of the Fort Collins case was the worst possible mixture of biology and psychology and rights and responsibilities. The girl is back with the husband and wife. Meanwhile, the biological father continues to pay support for her but has no visitation rights.

"The system is well tuned to collect child support," Workman says, "but not to preserve the relationships between children and their biological parents."

Ron's lawyer, Ted Mazurek, agrees that the new intrepretation of Colorado's paternity law is trouble, though for different reasons.

"There's no way in hell the law was ever intended to make non-fathers fathers," he says. "What they're saying is that the DNA test means nothing. Let's just line them up and choose the best one. Do we really want a hundred different judges out there picking daddies?"

Perhaps with such changeable standards and the constantly moving definitions of rights, responsibilities and parenting -- all overlaid with the issue of morality -- it was inevitable that the best any court could come up with in increasingly complicated paternity cases is that each one should be decided as it comes along. "At the end of the day, you can really do what you want with Colorado's paternity laws," says Kim Willoughby, a Denver family lawyer. And finding the high ground in any custody matter -- in which rage and retribution are often mingled with what might be best for the child -- is always tricky, none more so than in Ron and Anne's case.

Ron points out that doing the right thing means paying for your actions. He is paying $350 a month for his son, after all, and expects no different of Anne's lover. Yet there is no shortage of people who are certain that Ron would be a better person if he ignored the DNA tests.

"I don't know where the law will come down, but I would define Ron as a jerk," says one family lawyer familiar with the case.

Kenneth Ward, head of the Denver-based Fathers for Equal Rights, agrees. Ron has played father to a girl for nearly eight years, he points out; but for a single genetic test last summer, nothing has changed. "He should continue to be a father to his daughter," he says. "When I was growing up without a dad around, it wasn't the fact that my mother wasn't getting a check every month that I hated. It was that I didn't have a father."

Mazurek points out that the two facets of being a legal dad -- being a meaningful parent and paying the bills -- are not necessarily linked. Moreover, he contends that with the formulas commonly used to calculate child-support payments, Anne could probably get more money from her daughter's biological father than from Ron. So why not dun him for the money and let Ron continue on as a psychological parent?

Even that is not as simple as it sounds. On some level, genetics can and do make a difference. Larry Schwartz, who helped represent Donald Smith in his efforts to seek reimbursement from Charles Ames, notes that something subtle changed after Smith learned the three children he thought were his were not. Even though he continued to love them and seek time with them, "it hit him pretty hard," Schwartz says. "He changed jobs, moved away for a while." A little over a month ago, Smith was killed in a car accident.

And that's to say nothing of what effect the news can have on a child. Soon after the results of the genetic test came back, Ron says, Anne told her daughter that the man she thought was her father really was not. Since then, Ron says, their relationship has changed. "She doesn't call me at all," he says. "And I've told both children they can call with any questions." The last time he saw her was six months ago, at church. The last time he spent a day with her was four months before that, when they went to Red & Jerry's together.

Recently, Ron moved to Nevada to take a job promotion. He has begun dating again -- though no one seriously -- and says that someday he'd like to have a child. He adds, however, that he'd like to remain close to his ex-wife's youngest girl, as well. After all, they have a relationship.

"She's really my daughter," he explains. "I'm just not her father."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >