Complex bill would make it harder to challenge a father’s paternity rights in Louisiana
A complex paternity case that raises questions about how Louisiana defines families is moving from the courtroom to the Legislature.
A Baton Rouge lawmaker has filed a bill to help a New Orleans man fighting to be recognized as the father of his former girlfriend’s child.
House Bill 559 by Rep. Edward “Ted” James of Baton Rouge would make it more difficult for a man listed as “father” on a child’s birth certificate to have his paternity challenged later.
At present, the law allows a so-called “acknowledgment of paternity” to be voided if an unmarried man is not the biological father of the child. While that helps men avoid being forced to support children they have not sired, it works against Terry Hightower, the man James is trying to help.
Hightower broke up with his girlfriend of at least six years in January 2017 and has been trying ever since to maintain a relationship with the son she gave birth to in October 2016.
The child was conceived via a sperm donor and in vitro fertilization. Hightower is infertile; the former couple selected the donor together and had intended to raise him together, according to court documents.
Thus, Hightower was listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate, and the child shares Hightower’s middle name and surname.
But not long after he and the woman broke up, she sued to strip Hightower’s paternity. Hightower struck back; the case is now before the courts.
The Advocate is not naming the woman because she alleges in court filings to have been a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by Hightower. She said the repeated abuse was the reason she took the child and left.
James’ bill would allow Hightower and others in his situation to be stripped of paternity rights only if there is compelling evidence that any acknowledgment of paternity they had made was fraudulent, made under duress or included material errors of fact.
Hightower would not discuss his case, and his attorney did not respond to an inquiry Friday. James also did not return a call Friday.
However, Hightower has written about the case on a public Facebook page, Love Holds On, that has more than 6,000 followers. He also posted a picture of HB 559 and thanked James for introducing it.
“It’s been a long eight months of not being able to see or hold my son,” Hightower wrote in December. “After months of practicing tummy time with my son, I’ve never seen him crawl. I have not seen him stand up or take his first steps. My son’s paternal grandparents and I have forever missed the progression between these three stages; a vital progression which makes us human beings. We can never get that back.”
In Louisiana, a married man is presumed to be the father of any child his wife conceives during the marriage and can’t disavow a child born to his wife as a result of an in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination to which he consented.
But if an unmarried man acknowledges a child as his, his acknowledgment can later be voided if he is not that child’s father or if there is some mistake on the form, among other reasons.
While Hightower has touted James’ bill as a remedy to his problem, it may not, in fact, have the effect he desires. It would still allow the state to void paternity acknowledgments due to false information or errors, for example.
Thus, an attorney could argue that if Hightower is not in fact the child’s blood-related father, his acknowledgment itself is illegitimate.
Terri Miles, the lawyer for Hightower’s ex-girlfriend, said as much Friday. “I’ve looked at (the bill), and I think it’s very poorly written and doesn’t change anything,” she said.
Hightower’s ex-partner has argued that Hightower was nothing more than a baby sitter to her son for the first six months of his life, and that the boy, who is now a year and a half old, will not be harmed by not having Hightower around.
Her attorney has also called Hightower “an emotionally unstable man that yearns for the affection and attention that young children readily provide adults,” and said he abused the child’s mother verbally and physically on multiple occasions over at least a six-year period.
If Hightower’s request is granted, a precedent would be set for anyone who claims to have a filial relationship with the child of their dating partner to obtain custodial rights, Miles said.
“It could be a close friend — and (the mother) had a number of very close friends who were very involved in her decision to do in vitro fertilization,” Miles said. “But that doesn’t entitle them to come in and claim rights to that child.”
When asked about the form itself, the fact that the boy is named after Hightower, and the numerous pictures of Hightower, the woman and the baby on Hightower’s website and social media accounts, Miles chalked that up to poor decision-making by her client.
But she said those poor decisions should not bind the woman and her child to an allegedly unstable man for the rest of the child’s life.
“Before people act, they need to speak to an attorney and really understand the consequences of their actions, and that’s what was not done here,” Miles said.