Responsible Fatherhood

AS the two-parent family has become less common, so has the two-parent birth certificate. More than a quarter of all American babies are now born to single mothers. Only about a third of those out-of-wedlock infants have their paternity legally established, leaving millions of children with little or no financial and emotional support from their fathers.

To encourage more men to take responsibility, the Clinton administration wants to make it easier for unwed fathers to acknowledge legal paternity at the time of birth. Under the terms of a proposed regulation, states would be required to set up programs in hospitals and birthing centers to establish paternity. By signing a form to voluntarily acknowledge paternity, a new father eliminates the possibility of later court battles. He also increases his chances of forming a lasting relationship with his child.

In states that already have paternity identification programs, advocates for children find that a ``golden moment'' for getting signatures exists right after birth, when a father may feel euphoric about the baby's arrival and when his relationship with the infant's mother is still intact.

Establishing legal paternity is the first step in collecting child support. It also ensures that children will receive any Social Security, veterans', and insurance benefits they may be entitled to through their father, along with possible inheritances.

The proposal comes on the eve of another effort to increase child support. Beginning Jan. 1, a federal law will require mandatory wage withholding for child-support payments.

Child advocates expect the effort to increase support payments substantially. Yet the law is not without its critics, who argue that it risks stigmatizing noncustodial parents who faithfully pay, without prodding, every month. Skeptics also predict that it will encourage some parents to work ``off the books'' to avoid having their wages garnished.

Whatever the potential drawbacks, a more systematic collection of payments is essential. In 1989, $5.1 billion in court-ordered child support went unpaid.

If these dual efforts to establish paternity and collect child support prove effective, they will help to end the paternal vanishing act that has become all too common and tragic in American families. They send an important message that even if a father views his relationship with the mother of his children as temporary, his responsibilities to his offspring must be permanent.

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