The day after Rachel Emerson gave birth to a daughter last year in St. Paul, Minn., a medical-records clerk came into her hospital room with a booklet called ''Legal Fatherhood.'' The clerk encouraged Zach Tift, the baby's unmarried father, to read it, then sign a document acknowledging his paternity.
Mr. Tift agreed. In the presence of a notary public, the couple signed a Recognition of Parentage form, giving Tift parental rights and obligations.
''They just sort of sprung it on me,'' recalls Tift, who, like Ms. Emerson, was 17 when Maryah was born. ''But I definitely wanted to sign it, to say that I was the father and I was taking on full responsibility.''
For a growing number of unmarried couples, hospital scenes like this are becoming more common. Under a federal law that took effect Jan. 1, all states must offer unwed parents a simple, civil process in hospitals to establish paternity on a voluntary basis. By identifying more fathers and holding them responsible for child support, lawmakers expect to reduce welfare costs. Establishing paternity has, in fact, become a key component of welfare-reform legislation now before Congress.
At a time when one-third of all births in the United States are to unmarried women, supporters of paternity acknowledgment see wide-ranging advantages.
''It forges a bond between father and child,'' says Sue Bailey, president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association. Calling this a ''user-friendly process,'' she adds, ''The children's rights are protected from day one, as far as the benefits they derive from having a legal father.'' Those rights include veterans' or Social Security benefits that become available if a father dies, along with other forms of inheritance.
Studies show that about 80 percent of unwed fathers have some contact with the mother and baby within the first year, according to Marilyn Ray Smith, chief legal counsel for the child-support enforcement division of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. After that, contact drops precipitously. Establishing legal ties early, she says, increases the chances of maintaining relationships.
It also saves money. Traditionally, establishing paternity in courts costs about $1,000, Ms. Bailey says. Preliminary studies show the in-hospital process runs about $200. Child-support officials in West Virginia say their state saves between $400 and $1,500 in court costs and blood tests for each paternity established in a hospital.
Hospital-based paternity programs began in 1989 in Washington State. Provisions vary from state to state. In Virginia, the affidavit legally establishes paternity. More than 18,000 unwed fathers have acknowledged paternity there since 1990, according to Julie Cooper, assistant director of the state's child-support enforcement division.
California's Paternity Opportunity Program allows three years for a father to ask for a blood test. Signing the state's paternity declaration ''creates a presumption in the law that the man is the father but doesn't legally establish him as the father,'' says William Schwartz, deputy district attorney for the County of Los Angeles. That presumption becomes conclusive after three years.
In Massachusetts, if a father wants his name on the birth certificate, both parents must sign a voluntary acknowledgment of parentage. If neither parent contests the acknowledgment or requests a blood test within a year, the document is the same as a court order establishing paternity, Ms. Smith says. She notes that Massachusetts has achieved one of the highest rates of compliance, with 67 percent of unwed parents acknowledging paternity in the hospital or soon afterward at town clerks' offices.
Despite these early successes, challenges remain. One problem, says Rebecca Picard, a lawyer for the Fathers Resource Center in Minneapolis, involves a lack of public information about the process. Emerson and Tift, for example, say they knew nothing about in-hospital paternity acknowledgment.
''It's not done with a big ritual or a lot of formality, so both Mom and Dad, I'm finding, don't really understand the impact of what it is and is not that they're signing,'' Ms. Picard says. ''It has enormous financial consequences. It conclusively puts Dad on the hook for child support, although in Minnesota he does have the opportunity within 30 days to unsign it.''
In addition, Picard says, many men ''assume that if they have been adjudicated the father, then they must have all kinds of other rights. They don't realize that they must still go to court to have legal or physical custody or even visitation rights.''
A second challenge exists within medical facilities. Although hospitals are paid an incentive to administer the forms, enthusiasm varies.
''Some hospitals experience great anguish over this, because the program itself is perceived by some minority communities as threatening,'' Mr. Schwartz says. ''It appears to be more government meddling in their personal affairs.''
Even some fathers' advocates oppose the in-hospital approach. ''It's something I have a big problem with,'' says Thomas Henry, director of the Responsive Fathers Program at the Philadelphia Children's Network. ''It's sort of a bait-and-switch tactic. You play on the emotions of the young men and women at that time, but you don't put the proper support mechanisms around them to help them.''
Those supports, he says, must include education, job training, employment opportunities, and parenting classes. ''If those things were put in place, I would feel more comfortable with this.''
Mr. Henry and others say the process should start during prenatal visits, a step already under way in Massachusetts, where expectant parents receive explanatory videos in English and Spanish.
''Try to get the father involved at that point, where you can talk to him about his responsibility in being a parent and what that means,'' says Henry. ''If he's undereducated, you help him. If he's either not employed or underemployed, let's help him with that whole effort.''
Young parents, in particular, need information. ''We want them to think long-term,'' says Rick Dudis, coordinator of the hospital paternity project of the Child Support Enforcement Division in Charleston, W. Va. ''A lot of times teenagers see having a child as just a baby. They don't think of the child at 16, 17, or 18.''
Kirk Harris, director of the Center on Fathers, Families, and Public Policy in Chicago, outlines other needed reforms.
''One of the challenges in establishing paternity is that it opens up a large can of worms, particularly for low-income men,'' he says. ''Once you establish paternity, the next step is the establishment of child support. For a lot of low-income men, the collection of child support is problematic because their employment patterns are typically sporadic or nonexistent.
''Often these men find themselves in an adversarial position with the child-support system. That certainly diminishes the possibility of creating a connection to the family and actually engaging in fathering.''
Stressing the need for cultural change, Mr. Harris says, ''We need to stop assuming that because men are financially incapable of supporting their children, they have no other utility; then begin to reshape welfare reform that creates incentives for men to remain connected to families.''
As part of welfare reform, Congress is considering setting a national standard for paternity acknowledgment. Parents would have 60 days after signing a statement to change their minds. After that, the presumption of paternity would stand.
Because the federal law mandating in-hospital programs has been in effect less than a year, child advocates say it is too early to measure success in reducing welfare costs. But many express optimism about long-term effects, both economic and emotional.
''It really is doing the right thing for kids,'' says Smith. ''It's part of a growing movement for fathers to be part of kids' lives, even when parents aren't married.''
That philosophy applies to the relationship between Tift and Emerson. Although the couple, now 19, have not married, they live as a family and share the care and support of 17-month-old Maryah.
Referring to the paternity affidavit, Emerson says, ''Even though I haven't had concerns that Zach is going to run out on me and force me to chase him for child support, I'm glad he signed it. I think it would be good if all dads signed it, because it helps to make sure that they're going to take up their end of the responsibility.''