Young Fathers Urged to Sign on the Dotted Line

Jan. 31, 2008 — A new program is encouraging Virgin Islands fathers to step up to their proper role and get their names on their child's birth certificate from day one.
The Virgin Islands Voluntary In-Hospital Paternity Acknowledgment Program is a cooperative effort of the departments of Health and Justice and the Roy L. Schneider and Juan F. Luis hospitals. On Thursday morning officials from these agencies, Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis, Senate President Usie Richards and others held a press conference at Juan F. Luis Hospital to encourage young parents to participate.
Paternity information is important for medical reasons and to establish the legal rights and responsibilities of the parents. The paternity acknowledgment program requires cooperation between the Health Department's Division of Vital Statistics, which manages birth and death certificates; the obstetrics, gynecology, maternity and post-partum divisions of both hospitals, and the Department of Justice's division of Paternity and Child Support Services
"This is a step forward, not a punitive one," said Terrence Joseph, manager of Justice's division of Paternity and Child Support Services on St. Croix. "We are ultimately trying to gather the information necessary to provide the best service and put correct information for family medical histories."
There were between 500 and 600 children born in the territory last year with no established paternity, Joseph said. Hospital officials later said there were between 2,000 and 2,100 births in the territory last fiscal year; meaning more than one in four children born in the territory does not have established paternity.
"That statistic needs to change," Joseph said. "The importance of acknowledging paternity while in the hospital is threefold. First, it provides the medical history so in the event of medical need, finding whether a parent or child might be an organ donor and giving doctors the capacity to look at family history when devising treatment. Second, there is inheritance. If, before a father gets around to establishing paternity, he dies, sad as that is, the child will also have no opportunity to inherit. Absent official acknowledgment, he is not the legal father of the child. And third is establishing visitation and paternal rights. Also it can be an opportunity to provide insurance through the father, if the mother does not have the wherewithal to provide that for the child."
Colleen Liburd, a registered nurse in the Juan Luis Hospital postpartum ward, explained how the program worked on the ground. "It is primarily geared to single parents, as we know," she said. "When the patient delivers, we show a video explaining the issues and encouraging fathers to acknowledge paternity that day, while at the hospital. After the video, we go back and ask if they would like someone to speak to them about paternity.
"Then we get together with Mr. Joseph and see if the father is available at that time. There is a form with the mother's information and the father's information, they sign before a notary and that's it."
Joseph said the video is now in Spanish and English and eventually may be available in French Creole, Arabic and all other languages spoken in the territory.
Emphasizing that the program is for the benefit of the child and parents, not punitive, Joseph pointed out fathers can rescind the initial declaration within 60 days.
"You have an opportunity to change your mind until then," he said. "It becomes a legal history after 60 days. If you go beyond that time, you have to go through (V.I.) Superior Court to challenge it."
Asked why so many children were being born without a listed father, Joseph said he believed the reason was "procrastination, mainly."
Deputy Attorney General Charlotte Poole-Davis said fear of having child support charges filed may make some fathers reluctant to sign on the dotted line too.
"But we must encourage fathers to come forward and bear their responsibilities," she said.
Commissioner of Health Vivian Ebbesen-Fludd later said it is not solely an issue of single motherhood, but a more complex one of clarifying the legal status of every parent and child.
"If we are putting children first, then establishing paternity is a good thing," she said. "Often we are talking about unmarried couples with children, who may live together and have two or three children and then get married. It is often a matter of negligence as much as reluctance."
Joseph said the fact that a couple does not stay together doesn’t eliminate the role of the father.
"You don't have to be married," he said. "But once you have a child, you need to make the relationship between the parents work for the child."
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