Family Court Judge Sheds Light on Unfair Child Support Practices in Texas

Judge David Hanschen lets men challenge whether the kids they support are theirs. And the Texas Attorney General's Office is pissed.

The problem began the night his wife didn't come home. He had left his construction job, then fed their kids. He put them to bed, watched TV and tried to sleep. Often his wife worked past midnight at an Arlington restaurant, but it was 4 a.m. and she was still gone. Another few hours passed. Finally, she called. She'd been out with friends. Could he pick her up?

Antonio grew suspicious. Had she been with another man? No, of course not, she told him. But in his mind, it was the first crack in a marriage that continued to crumble.

Financial stress compounded their problems, causing terrible fights. The conflict reached a fever pitch in 2005. He left and moved in with his mother. Shortly after that, he got a phone call from a relative of his wife's. Your youngest daughter, he told Antonio, she isn't yours. She belongs to another man. Antonio refused to believe it. But after his mother heard similar rumors, even she began talking about how the little girl didn't look like their side of the family.

Family court Judge David Hanschen says Texas railroads poor, uneducated men into paying child support when their paternity may be in question.
MARK GRAHAM
Family court Judge David Hanschen says Texas railroads poor, uneducated men into paying child support when their paternity may be in question.
MARK GRAHAM
Family court Judge Lynn Cherry says paternity testing should be more widely available.
MARK GRAHAM
Family court Judge Lynn Cherry says paternity testing should be more widely available.
Family law attorney Kathy Ehman-Clardy says she wasn't surprised when Judge Hanschen ordered paternity testing for her client since he'd done it in a case she worked on before.
MARK GRAHAM
Family law attorney Kathy Ehman-Clardy says she wasn't surprised when Judge Hanschen ordered paternity testing for her client since he'd done it in a case she worked on before.
Belinda Odum-Gaston started Texas Families Against Paternity Fraud after a long battle to free her husband of financial responsibility for a child he didn't father.
MARK GRAHAM
Belinda Odum-Gaston started Texas Families Against Paternity Fraud after a long battle to free her husband of financial responsibility for a child he didn't father.

Over the next 18 months, Antonio tried to visit his children, but his wife wouldn't allow it. There were more fights—his wife claimed he hit her and slammed her against a car, which he denied. She moved and he couldn't find her. Then, last summer, shortly before his wife filed for divorce, Antonio received a letter from the Texas Attorney General's Office, the state agency charged with enforcing child support obligations.

The letter instructed him to go to a Dallas County child support court where in August 2007, he faced making monthly payments equal to 30 percent of his take-home pay, which was around $1,500.

Antonio (not his real name) requested DNA testing. If what his relatives said was true, he argued, why should he have to support a child who wasn't biologically his? He would later learn that under Texas law, a man is presumed to be the legal father of any child born during his marriage to the child's mother, and if he questions his paternity, he has only four years to challenge it. All of Antonio's children were older than 4 by the time he and his wife went to court.

What happened next focused attention on the growing availability of DNA testing and caused a legal uproar that ricocheted from the halls of the Dallas County family courts to the Austin headquarters of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott.

On January 14, family court Judge David Hanschen ordered Antonio and both of his daughters, ages 5 and 7, to undergo paternity testing immediately. The next day, lawyers within the attorney general's office who represent the state on behalf of the mother and children—asked the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas for an emergency order halting the testing. These lawyers cited the four-year statute of limitations and argued that because Antonio was already the legal father, he had no grounds to request DNA testing and dispute that he was the biological father.

The Court of Appeals agreed and ordered that no testing be conducted. But it was too late: On January 16, the lab released the results, which placed the probability of Antonio fathering either of the girls at zero percent. On January 25, appeals court Justice Carolyn Wright ordered that the test results be sealed and kept from the children. This was followed in March by the court's written opinion that slapped Hanschen for ordering the testing in the first place and ordered the DNA results destroyed.

Hanschen refuses to comment on specific cases, but says that in certain situations, a court's denial of DNA testing may violate a father's constitutional right to equal protection and the legal system itself may be condoning fraud. "In my court, the truth does not have a statute of limitations," he says. "It's just the truth, and if we have the means to know the truth, we should."

DNA testing has garnered widespread attention for freeing the innocent. Yet the growing availability of biological testing in paternity cases complicates efforts to balance the rights of fathers with the interests of children, who could be emotionally damaged by losing a father figure simply because he doesn't share their DNA. "Part of the problem," Hanschen says, "is science has gotten so ahead of the law that the law hasn't been able to catch up."

Hanschen, a tall, bearded man with a sober demeanor and deep baritone voice, has stood out as a maverick at the courthouse since he was elected in 2006 as one of more than 40 Democrats who swept the Dallas County judicial contests in a partisan sea change. He wears his hair in a ponytail that hangs down to his lower back and has been mocked by conservatives such as former state Republican Party chair Tom Pauken for being a "New Age" judge who chomps on "weird nuts and seeds" and has lawyers "sit under a Buddha which is prominently placed in his conference room." Hanschen calls the criticism "scurrilous." "Because I have a Buddha I bought in Thailand five years ago they think I'm operating some kind of cult in here," he says. "Come on, it's an amazing piece of art."

Aesthetics aside, through a year's worth of unorthodox moves regarding the way Texas enforces child support laws, the judge now finds himself in a battle against the largest law enforcement agency in the state. In February 2007, he complained that the attorney general's office was deceptively asking men to sign away valuable rights when they first appeared in child support court, and last summer he declared that the office's process for notifying presumed fathers of their court dates violated due process.

His recent authorization of paternity testing may have been the last straw for the office. E-mails viewed by the Dallas Observer and interviews with assistant attorneys general reflect that in early February of this year, supervising attorneys within the office's Child Support Division launched a concerted campaign to collect affidavits from nearly a dozen staff lawyers—in some cases exerting pressure on them—with the apparent goal of filing a complaint alleging judicial misconduct against Hanschen and possibly fellow family court Judge Lynn Cherry. (She sides with Hanschen on many of these issues.)

Whatever the motivation of the attorney general's office, its response to challenges from these Dallas judges seems heavy-handed. "It's very rare," says University of Texas School of Law professor Jack Sampson, who co-wrote the Texas Family Code. "The way you're supposed to correct judges' errors is by appealing, not by attacking the judge directly."

But there is much at stake for the attorney general's office. A powerful state bureaucracy accustomed to getting its way, the office touts its dogged pursuit of deadbeat dads and casts itself as an advocate for children. The office's Child Support Division is a prized component of Attorney General Abbott's administration. The office has been nationally recognized for leading the country in child support collections, with a record $2.3 billion for its 2007 fiscal year. Since his election in 2002, Abbott has made child support a major focus of his office and used it as a rallying cry in his 2006 re-election campaign.

But to critics, the office's unwillingness to acknowledge that some of its practices may railroad poor, uneducated men into financial hardship is evidence of more sinister motives. The office receives federal funds based in part on the amount of child support that it collects and distributes, giving the Child Support Division a budgetary incentive to close as many cases as it can, no matter whose rights it might trample.

Hanschen has also drawn criticism, with some observers saying he "sets himself above the law" and legislates from the bench. But his supporters counter that he's merely shedding light on the problematic laws that govern the messy matters of sex, fidelity and truth in paternity matters. In fact, lawmakers and fathers' rights activists have been lobbying across the state and the country for changes to a body of laws that are crucial for assisting women and children but can also saddle the wrong men with onerous child support obligations, seized assets and even jail time.

————

It was a Tuesday morning in late February. A dozen women sat on benches on the third floor of the George Allen Sr. Courts Building, which houses Dallas County's IV-D courts, where assistant attorneys general champion the child support rights of low-income moms.

Some of the women held swaddled infants; others chased after toddlers who skipped down the hallway laughing, blissfully ignorant of the proceedings that brought their mothers there. While a few sullen men talked on their cell phones in low voices, a middle-aged black woman complained to a young mother. "I don't understand why they have you come here and sit so someone can mediate—we can mediate just fine," she said, shaking her head about the errant father who wasn't supporting his kids. "It just adds up and adds up and adds up."

Inside one of the three packed IV-D courtrooms—with its voluminous child support docket—Associate Judge Sean Finn scolded a tall blond man in a suit who had consistently missed his payments. "You need to understand that you need to pay your child support each and every month, not just before you come to court," the judge said loudly, his face stern.

The man nodded.

"She's losing time off her job to come down here and get money from you that you're not paying, and I don't want to bring her down here again."

These are the types of scenes most people think of when they hear the words "child support" or "deadbeat dads"—frustrated single mothers who turn to the state for help as they struggle to care for their children while thwarted by men who skip town, won't work or simply refuse to pay. Hanschen, who as a judge has sent dozens of deadbeat dads to jail, is more than a little familiar with such problems. It's just that other problems seem to be largely ignored.

"The vast majority of the work the Attorney General does is necessary—it's providing legal services to poor people, and we need to have child support," he says. "There are, however, some huge holes that have been created by these laws."

On a March afternoon in the chambers of his 254th Court, Hanschen wears his trademark gray hair pulled back in a long braid. His intense blue eyes and gray beard make him look a bit like a bookish Gandalf the Grey. Speaking slowly and methodically, he lays out his concerns about the laws governing the presumption of paternity, especially the four-year statute of limitations. "I'm not out to destroy anything. I just want the right dad paying child support or going to jail for not paying."

Twelve years ago when in private practice, Hanschen represented a client who came to him after a girlfriend he hadn't seen in a decade showed up with a 10-year-old and announced it was his. The man, a barber in Oak Cliff, took the woman at her word and signed an Acknowledgement of Paternity, the legal document that makes a man the legal father until the child reaches 18. The man later became suspicious and got a DNA test that showed he wasn't the father. But it was too late. "They hit him with $32,000 in back child support," Hanschen says. "He lost his business and went underground."

As a judge, Hanschen's first problem with the practices of the attorney general's Child Support Division occurred in February 2007, shortly after he had taken the bench. Because he knew he would be hearing many appeals from the IV-D courts, he decided to learn how things were being done there. He noticed that when a man arrived, an assistant attorney general would ask him if he had a lawyer. If he said no, as most did, the attorney simply told him to sign in. Hanschen glanced at the signed papers and discovered that the forms were actually appearance sheets. After the lines for name, address and phone number, a paragraph at the end stated, "I wish to avail myself of the jurisdiction of this court and hereby make my appearance in this case for all purposes." By signing it, Hanschen says, the men were giving up their right to challenge the court's jurisdiction over them.

After discussing his concerns with several judges and lawyers, he directed the IV-D judges, as well as the assistant attorneys general in each of the child support courts, to stop using the forms or to remove the last paragraph and signature line. The attorney general staffers in one court only stopped after a conversation that Hanschen describes as "forceful."

Jerry Strickland, the attorney general's communications director, confirms that these forms are no longer used in Dallas County but defends their use elsewhere in the state. "They allowed our staff to note who appeared in court on a given day," Strickland says. "They had no legal effect on the outcome of parents' cases."

But to Hanschen, there could have been adverse effects. If no one explained to them their rights and what the form meant, he wonders, what else wasn't being explained?

UT's Sampson doesn't take as dire a view of the appearance sheets as Hanschen, noting that the men had already received notice and could still request DNA testing. But he agreed that the process can be inequitable. "It's kind of unfair to get someone to sign something they don't understand," he says. "Some of them can't read, they're poor—so their chances of understanding everything they sign is the same as you understanding everything on an insurance policy...And the worst thing here is it's for 18 years."

Indeed, once unmarried men sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity—either in the hospital when the child is born or afterward in the IV-D courts, contesting paternity—with or without DNA proof—can be a daunting task. "If a man goes out and gets DNA testing that says it's not his child, but it's after four years, he's screwed," says a local assistant attorney general who asked not to be named. "You've got 17-year-old kids signing these things, and they don't even know what they're doing."

When hospital staffers ask fathers to sign the form, the paperwork cites DNA testing as an option, but young, unwed fathers are unlikely to request it in front of the mother and her family.

"I had a recent case where both parents were 16," the attorney says. "Both families are there—when is he supposed to say, 'I want DNA?' He'd be accusing her of sleeping with someone else." It's important for children to have fathers, the lawyer adds, but "now you've just allowed a mother to name whoever she wants to name, and if the guy is gullible or ignorant enough to sign it, he's stuck."

Hanschen's second problem with the Child Support Division procedures arose last summer, when he heard about a case in which a man, ordered to pay child support, said he hadn't gotten notice of the proceedings against him. By law, the attorney general's office may notify presumed fathers of these proceedings with a first-class letter instead of personal service by a constable, deputy sheriff or process server. If the man doesn't get the letter—for example, if his address has changed—and fails to show up for court, a default judgment is entered against him, and he can no longer contest paternity or the amount of child support.

These letters, Hanschen says, are not adequate notice. "The Family Code laws are in conflict. One says you have to be served by a process server, with instructions to let you know this is serious stuff, as opposed to a one-page letter that says, 'Come down and talk,'" he maintains. "To give people proper due process rights, you have to give them proper notice."

Strickland, however, says the Child Support Division does in fact serve most presumed fathers by a constable or sheriff. But men often dodge service. "Obviously there are non-custodial parents who are not living up to their responsibility," he says.

Yet Hanschen isn't the only judge who has problems with the division's efforts to notify presumed fathers. Family court Judge Tena Callahan, who also came to the bench in the Democratic sweep, says she's had several child support cases with the attorney general's office in which inadequate notice has come up. "It's a problem," she says. "The presumption is they get [the letter], but sometimes they don't. And next thing they know they're getting child support taken out of their paychecks."

————

Whether men feel wronged by inadequate notice, misguided legal principles or dishonest mothers, those who find themselves paying for children who aren't theirs can turn to advocacy organizations that fight what they call paternity fraud. Carnell Smith, founder and executive director of Georgia-based U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, organized the group after discovering that a child he'd supposedly fathered with a former girlfriend and supported to the tune of $40,000 over 11 years wasn't actually his. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case, but Smith finally was relieved of the financial burden by legislation, which he has successfully spearheaded in several states—including Georgia—that allows men to use DNA tests to disprove previously acknowledged paternity.

Smith says thousands of men across the country have contacted him since he started the group in 2001, but he also hears from women, mostly the wives of men wrongly paying child support.

Dallas resident Belinda Odum-Gaston founded Texas Families Against Paternity Fraud after a lengthy legal battle to free her husband of financial responsibility for a child he didn't father. He had signed an Acknowledgement of Paternity after a woman with whom he'd had an affair claimed he fathered her son.

Odum-Gaston received a statement showing that the attorney general's office was seizing their joint tax refund to pay child support—her first indication that her husband had engaged in an affair and fathered a child. She confronted her husband, who had little contact with the child, and convinced him to get DNA testing. After test results revealed her husband was not the biological father, Odum-Gaston hired a private investigator to track down the real father and confirm his paternity.

"I was devastated [by the affair], but I was more devastated by how my husband was played," Odum-Gaston says. "I can't do anything about what two consenting adults did, but I damn sure can do something to protect the estate I've worked to accumulate."

Though the attorney general's office fought review of the case, the couple hired an attorney. They were relieved of the child support obligation, winning a $4,000 judgment against the mother.

To avoid such entanglements, Smith proposes that paternity testing be required before presumed fathers sign anything. Opponents say it would reduce fatherhood to biology alone and ruin family stability by allowing men who have already established fatherly relationships with children to disappear from their lives.

But to Hanschen and fellow family court judges Cherry and Callahan, the so-called family integrity protected by current law is often nonexistent. "What kind of integrity does this family have when someone is perpetrating a fraud against someone else?" Callahan says. "The law doesn't seem to care." Cherry agrees, saying more access to paternity testing would cut down on fraud and give judges more discretion to determine what's best for families on a case-by-case basis. "You may have a father who says, 'I don't care if he's not mine, he's my baby,'" she says. "But if there's a question, especially when there's misrepresentation and fraud, to slam the door shut [on paternity testing] is an injustice."

"I think the child has an innate right to know who his biological parents are," Hanschen adds, pointing out the importance of genetic testing for health reasons such as identifying hereditary diseases. "Part of the Family Code is that the child's interest overrides everything—I can't figure out how it's in the child's interest to lie to him about who his parents are."

Jack W. Marr, president of the Family Law Foundation, which lobbies lawmakers on family law issues, says presumptive fatherhood bears re-examination by the Texas Legislature. In a one-year period between 2005 and 2006, he says, at least eight cases in which presumed fathers turned out not to be biological fathers were sent to appeals courts statewide (Hanschen points out that since most of the division's cases involve indigent men who can't afford a lawyer much less an appeal, the number of contested cases is likely much higher). "That tells me that in Texas there's a serious problem that needs to be addressed," Marr says. "We're trying to solve it."

Recent legislative attempts have been unsuccessful, but the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues is slated to address the problem in the next legislative session. In the 2007 session, Houston state Representative Harold Dutton Jr. wrote a bill that would have made DNA testing available to men in divorce cases, ordered non-biological fathers to pay no more than $100 per month and allowed them to maintain relationships with children without necessarily being financially responsible for them. The bill died in the State Senate.

For now, Marr says, his group has agreed to wait on the "sticky wicket" of married men and focus its efforts in the next session on resolving the notice issue by requiring personal service of process. "The whole thing is based on expediency for the attorney general's office. They don't want to serve people personally," Marr says. "We're going to address situations where there are defaults and allow these people to come in and get DNA testing."

————

The way Antonio found out about his wife's child support claim was fairly haphazard. He was digging through a pile of mail at his mother's house last August when he found a letter from the Office of the Attorney General's Child Support Division. It instructed him to appear in court the following week. He was surprised and angry. Because his wife hadn't let him see the children in nearly two years, he says, he tried visiting them in school. But they were in class, so he left $2,000 with administrators to give to them.

"After all this time not knowing about the kids, she files for child support?" he says. "I was upset."

On August 30, he appeared in IV-D court, and after Antonio raised the question of paternity, Judge Finn ordered DNA testing. The attorney general's office appealed the order, which would become relevant again when Antonio's wife filed for divorce in September. Her attorney declined to comment because the case is ongoing.

Antonio hired his own attorney, Kathy Ehmann-Clardy, and on January 14, they appeared before Hanschen on the issue of DNA testing.

Ehmann-Clardy figured that they had a decent chance of winning: She'd been involved in a similar case where Hanschen ordered DNA testing for a divorcing father who had a relationship with his presumed children.

Hanschen didn't disappoint. "It is clearly in the children's best interest to know who their father is," he announced from the bench. "It is clearly in the state's best interest to know who the father is so the correct person can be paying child support...Testing ordered immediately."

In an interview, Hanschen would argue that current law doesn't give fathers equal protection and requires that a court enforce "a lie" when the truth is just a lab test away. "I'm bound to uphold the laws of Texas, unless I find them to be unconstitutional," he says. "People get all upset about the term 'activist judges'—we're not making up laws here, we're saying there's a problem...and we need the appellate system to sort it out for us."

UT's Sampson says the appellate courts have spoken to the issue and have consistently upheld the four-year limitation. And that is precisely what the 5th Court of Appeals did on January 16, when not two days after Hanschen ruled, Justice Wright stayed his order for testing. And then 10 days later, after the appeals court learned the DNA test already had been conducted, the appeals court ordered the results sealed.

On March 12, a panel of justices agreed with the attorney general's position that Hanschen had gone too far by ordering the testing.

"[A]lthough the judge's position is that there should be no statute of limitations on the truth and it's in the best interests of the children to know who their father is," wrote Justice Douglas S. Lang, "such determinations are a matter for the Legislature, not the trial court."

Hanschen counters that if a trial court fails to make a declaration about a law's shortcomings, there's no way for a higher court to review it. Hanschen might find himself in a position to review the issue if it comes up in a subsequent case; he is running for a seat on the all-Republican 5th Court of Appeals in the November election.

One Dallas family lawyer finds Hanschen's actions "regal" and "ego-driven," while maintaining that most lawyers who have considered the subject feel the four-year statute of limitations is bad law. "But it is the law—and Hanschen is saying, 'I don't like it, so I'm just not going to follow it,'" the lawyer says. "He's set himself up as above the law."

Whether Hanschen is a principled jurist or a rogue judge, he is drawing attention to a controversial area of law that impacts millions nationwide. "You've got a judge sitting up there saying, 'Hey, there's something wrong here,'" says Marr, of the Family Law Foundation. "It highlights the seriousness of the issue, and the problem isn't going to go away just because there's presently a gotcha clause in the law."

————

In mid-February, rumors began spreading in the courthouse that the attorney general's office had it out for a couple of the district judges. Hanschen heard that higher-ups within the Child Support Division had begun collecting affidavits about him. So did Judge Cherry, who also had clashed with the attorney general's office over child support issues.

"Several AG employees told me they felt uncomfortable because the people at the regional office were asking them for negative information about me and some of the other district judges," Cherry recalls. "I thought it was bizarre behavior from a government agency."

On February 1, supervisors within the division had begun asking staff attorneys if they'd ever heard the two judges make derogatory comments about the office. One assistant attorney general, who requested anonymity, recalls telling supervisors about an occasion when Hanschen had derided the office. (The judge has referred to supervising attorneys within the division as "black-booted government thugs" and "shits." Hanschen admits that he can be "quite blunt at times.")

Most of the attorneys who were asked to submit complaints against Hanschen and Cherry assumed their bosses were planning to hold a meeting with the judges. But later e-mails from James Jones, a senior regional attorney supervising the Dallas Child Support Division, suggested the attorney general's office might be planning to file a complaint against these judges with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

In a February 4 e-mail, Jones wrote, "I want to thank everyone who responded to my request concerning Judge Hanschen and Judge Cherry. I will respond individually to everyone who submitted an incident...[A certain assistant attorney general] will then prepare an affidavit for you to sign...We want to expedite this in an effort to get all the affidavits to Austin by Thursday. We need your responses to my individual e-mails ASAP."

To some staffers, this was a red flag. "When I hear affidavit and Austin, I think you're trying to file a judicial misconduct complaint on someone," says one assistant attorney general. "Filing a judicial misconduct charge against a judge if they haven't done anything—you'd be blackballed. If you get fired, where you gonna go?"

Many of the division attorneys in Dallas who were contacted agreed to sign affidavits, but several refused. On February 7, Jones sent this e-mail: "Some of you have indicated your concern as to what will happen if a complaint is filed with the SCJC, and that it will be uncomfortable and unpleasant appearing in the 254th Family District Court after Judge Hanschen is aware of our complaint...We must protect our AAGs and a motion to recuse is an absolute necessity." A recusal would mean an attempt to have Hanschen and Cherry removed from thousands of cases. "Again, I appreciate very much the courage it took for each of you to step forward," Jones concluded.

On February 8, an assistant attorney general (who declined to speak with the Observer) refused to complain about the judges. "At this time," he wrote in a group e-mail, "I do not want to participate in any activity regarding Judge Hanschen except regular court matters."

Jones replied: "Detail for me why you feel you have the right to disregard Article 8.03b of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct." (The ethics rule requires lawyers to report instances of judicial misconduct.)

But the assistant countered: "I took your initial request of us to mean that you were interested in things that Judge Hanschen and Judge Cherry have done which we felt were inappropriate. This has now escalated to the point where you wish me to claim professional misconduct against a district judge. If I am to risk myself, and my reputation, I certainly want to make sure I have the grounds to do so." Although the attorney wrote that he did not agree with some of Hanschen's "methods or motives," he felt they "did not raise a substantial question as to the judge's fitness for office."

Jones declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to the attorney general's press office. Strickland, the communications director, summarized the office's position in a written statement. "Attorneys in our Dallas-area offices expressed serious concerns about certain judges' courtroom conduct and perceived bias against the Child Support Division and the child support collection process," he wrote. "Because that conduct posed a potential threat to the children who depend upon this office for child support, more information was sought about certain judges' alleged misconduct. The objective was an informal gathering of voluntary factual statements from concerned staff attorneys."

But the relentless manner in which superiors went about gathering these affidavits raises questions about how voluntary they truly are.

Strickland even acknowledges that staff attorneys have raised concerns about the statement collection process and said the division is conducting a review. As for potential complaints against the judges, he says the jury's still out. "No final decision has yet been made as to whether the underlying complaints warrant filing a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct."

————

To Antonio, who is now 30, the legal and political clashes between two governmental bodies are meaningless. The important thing for him is to somehow sort out what to do about his broken family and get on with his life. He wants the lawsuits to be over, but with the recent Court of Appeals decision and the fact that settling his divorce would mean accepting legal paternity for all three children, there's no end in sight.

On a recent afternoon, he sits in his lawyer's office and talks about the three children he once thought were his. He says he misses taking them to the park and hearing them call him Dad. The girls were just toddlers when he left, and even though he wasn't much of a "girly" guy, he misses playing dolls with the older one. When he was granted rights to see them early this year, his lawyer advised him against visiting the girls if he was going to contest paternity. It might re-establish their bond and hurt his case. It was a tough decision, but his bitterness at his wife's betrayal and the financial hardship of supporting two non-biological children swayed him. He would see only his son.

In January, father and son were reunited at a Chuck E. Cheese. It was awkward at first, but after a few rounds of skeeball, the 8-year-old loosened up and seemed to have fun.

They see each other every weekend now, visiting Antonio's mother and going to the movies. The boy's 7-year-old sister, meanwhile, is heartbroken. She doesn't understand why the man she still remembers as her father visits her brother but not her. During a recent visit with his son, Antonio called his estranged wife to say he would be late dropping the boy off, and she told him the girl had been crying all day. Her mother put her on the phone. "She wanted me to buy her a toy, pick her up," Antonio says, his face somber and resigned. "I told her, 'Not right now.'"

For now, Antonio hopes that one day, the hearings and the waiting and the legal fees will come to an end. And as he strives to return to some semblance of normal life, he tries to remember the truth, and not to think about the little girl's tears or wonder how things might have been different.

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