HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — For unmarried, expectant mothers at Queen of Angels Presbyterian Hospital here, birth clerk Josephine Santos explains a brochure entitled, "How a declaration of paternity can help you and your new baby."
"If the father does not sign this form today," she says, pointing to a one-page legal document, "he may not be considered the legal parent with responsibilities or rights for the child."
This maternity ward's sign-before-you-leave scenario is one that is being repeated increasingly at hospitals coast to coast as states cope with a tenfold rise in America's nonmarital birth-rate. That rate has risen from 3 to 30 percent of all births from 1940 to 1993 and is heading higher. But slowly, states are embracing federal guidelines created 10 years ago and tightened through welfare reform, requiring all states to encourage and simplify the voluntary paternity-establishment process.
To do so, more and more hospitals are taking measures to get unwed dads to sign on the dotted line without shot-gun-wielding in-laws, court battles, and blood tests. Instead, they talk of benefits: child-support entitlement, possible Social Security, and others as they try to get fathers to take a more active and supportive role in their child's life. And somewhat surprisingly, a high percentage of such fathers - close to 70 percent in some states - are stepping up without so much as a nudge.
To many families, this simple declaration of future responsibility could help steer them around legal, emotional, and financial battles in years to come.
"I'm excited to go ahead and sign ... it's my kid," says George Ramirez, whose girlfriend holds their new son. Realizing his signing will grant him legal rights to the child but also financial responsibility, Mr. Ramirez says: "I was surprised to find out I didn't have certain rights such as visitation unless I signed. This will head-off all kinds of problems."
For states and families alike, those avoided problems add up to millions of dollars. In California alone, the state spends $30 million annually to establish paternity for California children. That doesn't begin to tally the savings in tracking down so-called "deadbeat dads" who have refused to pay child support. And it doesn't touch the cost to taxpayers who foot the bill for out-of-wedlock births, or the incalculable savings to welfare rolls if more males were to take financial responsibility for their children.
More than just California
All 50 states are promoting the benefits of men stepping forward to declare, "Yep, I'm the father." With help from outreach campaigns on billboards, TV, radio, and through good old fashioned word of mouth, 350,000 nonmarital paternities were established inside hospital rooms nationwide last year.
"This is an incredibly dramatic change," says Paula Roberts, senior staff attorney for the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "In a few short years the US has literally gone from a system where paternity could not be established without going to court to one where a father can sign a simple, one-page form in the hospital, and that's it."
The legal and economic stakes will continue to rise, sociologists say, as the nonmarital birthrate heads even higher. If the current trend holds, it could reach 50 percent in a few decades.
The shift itself reflects many societal changes. Both men and women are sexually more active at younger ages, both are delaying marriage more often, and cohabitation is more common while abortion as a means to deal with unplanned pregnancy is dropping. Fewer unmarried parents are placing their children for adoption, as well - 3 percent of white infants and only 1 percent of African-Americans.
To deal with these changes, Congress has enacted laws to push states toward designing strategies to educate teen parents about fiscal and emotional consequences and to make sure those who do become unmarried parents assume responsibilities.
"The law is finally catching up to changing social reality," says Ms. Roberts.
But designing and implementing a workable paternity system has turned out to be no easy task, she says, as states try to examine and reconfigure existing laws, which historically have treated nonmarital childbearing as a criminal matter.
"One obvious peril in this is that the wrong father will sign," says Laura Kadwell, director of child support enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, noting that most states have a 60-day takeback provision. "The whole idea is not just to get any ol' dad [to sign] ... but the right one," she says.
Her state pilot project also tries to examine unmarried parent relationships that might jeopardize children caught between two parents who do not wish to be together.
Still work to be done
There are also hosts of legal issues to be ironed out depending on the age of parents, residency in different states, pending divorces, and more. Yet supporters say the discovery of so many willing signees has been a bright spot in the new push for paternity.
In California last year, 111,850 new fathers signed paternity forms voluntarily, a sixfold increase over the year before. In other states, percentages are higher.
"When we first started these projects, we thought maybe 20 percent of those unmarried dads would come forward to sign," says Robert Willliams, a researcher for the Denver-based Center for Policy Studies, which has studied paternity programs in Massachusetts and New Jersey. "The rate exceeded 70 percent in both states. That says to me America needs to reexamine its assumptions about why unmarried fathers choose to marry or not."
Many organizations are doing just that. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, and other states also have pilot projects examining these connections in addition to the motives for participation.
"We are finding there are a whole host of reasons connected more with employment rather than love for child or mother," says Jeff Johnson, director of the National Center for Strategic Non-Profit Planning and Community Leadership in Washington.
There are other caveats. So far, say experts, the increase in paternity signings has not yet translated into increased child support - but the trend may be too new. The point to remember, they add, is that voluntary paternity establishment is still an experiment.
"This is going to take some watching," says Kris Moore, staff attorney at Child Trends, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that produces data on children and families.
"The hypothesis is that men's behavior will change as they are drawn in to take responsibility for their children - and that kids will grow up with fewer problems because of that," he says. "What is important for now, is that we are trying to find out how to involve men more."