For decades paternity tests have been cast as the bad guys, the marriage-breakers, an all-round negative experience – but now, as they become a more common part of modern life, some experts are extolling the positive side of testing.
It is estimated that in Australia, more than 10,000 people – interestingly, mainly women – sign up each year to find out whether their child is biologically theirs, says Professor Michael Gilding of Melbourne’s Swinburne Institute for Social Research.
While that number seems large, Australia remains a bit slow off the mark in embracing these tests. In the US each year, there are about five times as many paternity tests per head as the population.
But Gilding and other experts believe it is just a matter of time before this type of testing becomes more the norm in Australia, with tests becoming more accessible, affordable and acceptable.
— Getting a test
There are two types of paternity tests available in Australia – legal and non-legal.
A non-legal test is for personal information only and cannot be used for legal issues. It usually involves taking a mouth swab using a kit received in the mail. The swabs are taken from the alleged father and child and are then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Legal tests are required by law to comply with the Australian Family Law Act, so there are strict conditions concerning sample collection and all samples must be tracked from the collection centre to the testing laboratory to be admissible as evidence in court.
— Who wants them?
Men’s rights organisations, such as the Men’s Rights Agency, claim up to 30 per cent of men in Australia are living with a child they mistakenly believe is their biological offspring. In the past, the group has called for mandatory testing of all babies at birth.
Gilding adamantly disputes this figure and says it is probably closer to between one and three per cent.
“To insist everyone has a paternity test because of that [small percentage] where there is paternal discrepancy is overkill,” he says. He adds that most paternity issues arise during a break-up or strained periods in a relationship.
“The main group of people requesting tests are women who have a child outside of marriage and there is a dispute around paternity and supporting parent’s benefit,” Gilding says.
The next-biggest group ordering paternity tests are men with doubts about whether a child they are caring for is biologically theirs – and this has already been shown to have major repercussions for families.
In November 2011 an Australian woman was ordered to pay her former husband almost $13,000 after he arranged a DNA test that confirmed he was not the biological father of the woman’s 14-year-old son.
Andrea Hayward, director of DNA QLD, a specialist paternity testing facility, agrees that the number of men unwittingly raising children who are not biologically theirs has been over-estimated.
“In our experience, 80 per cent of men get paternity confirmed,” Hayward says. “While there are stories of aggrieved fathers who have spent years paying child support for children they then find are not theirs, for a lot of people, testing is a positive experience.
“Someone may have said something that makes a man wonder whether a child is really his. A test can eliminate doubt.”
— Who gives consent?
Another contentious issue is whether both parents should be aware of a test. Gilding believes there are times when the tests can be carried out without the other parent’s consent.
“I think men have a right to the knowledge of their biological paternity. But they shouldn’t be able to do a test without the mother’s knowledge,” he says.
“Tests can be done in anger. But both parents need to think about their relationship to the child. Trying to humiliate the mother may undermine a father’s long-term relationship with that child,” Gilding says.
— Here to stay
Hayward and Gilding believe paternity testing is generally a positive initiative. Plus, there is no going back now.
“Paternity tests are here. The genie is out of the bottle,” Gilding says. “And for the eight out of 10 men who find they are the father, that’s a cause for relief.”