Many years ago, I sat next to the daughter of a famous geneticist on a train from Washington to Philadelphia. For some reason, we started talking about genealogy, and she laughed.
Her father had told her that his preliminary DNA research indicated that as much as 28 percent of the population had fathers other then the men they thought were their dads.
Carry that out a generation or two, and most genealogy becomes pretty meaningless. In the years since then, sophisticated DNA analysis has saved the lives and commuted the sentences of a number of wrongly convicted prison inmates.
And it has also enabled us to resolve the age-old question of fatherhood.
Unfortunately, the law often lags behind science. This came to the attention of Macomb County State Senator Steve Bieda nearly two years ago, thanks to a truly horrific case.
Daniel Quinn of Fenton fell in love with a woman named Candace seven years ago. He thought she was divorced. They lived together, and six years ago had a daughter named Maeleigh.
But it turned out the mother wasn’t divorced at all, and eventually returned to her husband. That man, Adam Beckwith, claimed he had a legal right to be considered Maeleigh’s father, even though DNA proved Quinn was her biological parent.
The story gets worse. The couple moved to Kentucky and embarked on a life of crime, reportedly using the little girl as a prop while they sold drugs out of their car.
Eventually, Beckwith was convicted of six drug-related felonies. Candace pled guilty to drug-related charges, as well as child neglect, but got off with probation.
Dan Quinn desperately wanted his daughter back, but legally, had no rights whatsoever, thanks to an ancient Michigan law that said a woman‘s husband is legally presumed to be the father of any child given birth to by his wife. That was the best way society could protect children. But in this case, the law had produced a grave injustice.
Senator Bieda had practiced some family law, and was aware of some legal anomalies like this one. All this led him to introduce a package of bills jointly called the Revocation of Paternity Act. They establish procedures for establishing that a child’s presumed father is not the actual father, in cases like this.
The paternity law gained immediate, widespread bipartisan support. Whether we like it or not, 42 percent of Michigan babies are born to unmarried women, and some, like Maeleigh are born to married women who have partners other than their husbands. Last month, just before Father’s Day, Governor Snyder signed the paternity bills into law.
Dan Quinn still likely has a long, tough road ahead, especially if Maeleigh’s mother doesn’t want to give up custody. But these bills do give him a legal right to try and win back his daughter.
They will also hopefully prevent other such horror stories and save biological parents - and assumed parents as well - time, money, and costly legal wrangling. By the way, the new paternity act can’t be used to undo legal adoptions. These laws are a rare case of bipartisan cooperation for the good of all citizens.
We could do with a lot more of that in this state.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.