CFRP Working Paper Series | W14002

When Father Doesn’t Bother: Conditioning the Failure to Establish Paternity In-Hospital on Fathers’ Presence at the Birth

November 2014

Cynthia Osborne and Daniel Dillon

The University of Texas at Austin | LBJ School of Public Affairs | Child and Family Research Partnership

Cynthia Osborne is an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and Director of the Child and Family Research Partnership at the LBJ School. Daniel Dillon is a Senior Research Associate at the Child and Family Research Partnership.

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Children of unmarried parents do not have a legal father until paternity is established, a process completed by most families in the hospital at the time of the birth. Though nearly all fathers who are present at the birth establish paternity in-hospital, roughly one-quarter of unmarried fathers do not attend the birth and will overwhelmingly fail to establish paternity voluntarily. This paper proposes that the failure to establish paternity in-hospital consists of two distinct circumstances, often conflated in past research— fathers’ absence from the birth, and fathers’ choice not to establish paternity when present. Using new data collected through the Paternity Establishment Study (PES), a longitudinal birth cohort study of approximately 800 Texas mothers who gave birth outside of marriage in 2013, we examine the failure to establish paternity in-hospital conditioning on fathers’ presence at the birth. We find that more than two-thirds of fathers who do not establish paternity are not present at the hospital when the opportunity to establish paternity is offered; only 11 percent of birth-present fathers decline to establish paternity. Results from descriptive analyses and multinomial logistic regressions suggest that the factors predicting non-establishment differ between fathers who are present and absent from the hospital. Fathers who are absent from the hospital often have a short and fragile history with the mother and provide little support during the pregnancy. A fathers’ absence from the 20-week ultrasound emerges as the strongest predictor of his absence from the birth, suggesting this standard prenatal checkup may be an optimal time to provide unaccompanied mothers with information on paternity establishment and child support. For birth-present fathers, only father doubting the child’s paternity attains marginal significance as a predictor of the failure to establish paternity. Offering free, non-conditional paternity testing to these fathers in the hospital may facilitate more accurate paternity establishment. Overall, results suggest rates of in-hospital paternity establishment may be near a maximum level given the prevalence of fathers’ birth-absence. Further consideration should be given to fathers’ birth-absence as a signal for looming concerns such as limited father involvement and support, especially in view of the birth as a potential point of intervention.

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