Legal Images of Fatherhood: Welfare Reform, Child Support Enforcement, and Fatherless Children

62 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2008

See all articles by Jane C. Murphy

Jane C. Murphy

University of Baltimore - School of Law

Date Written: 2005


This Article analyzes the issue of paternity disestablishment, an issue courts and legislatures have been struggling with over the last several years. For a variety of reasons explored in this Article, an increasing number of fathers have filed requests to set aside paternity orders seeking to be relieved of the legal obligations of fatherhood. As a result families have been destabilized and children are becoming fatherless. The implications for the future of the family are profound. Although some scholars have examined this phenomenon, none have addressed the link between paternity disestablishment and welfare reform.

This Article explores the law's evolving definition of fatherhood and concludes that the law's response to the paternity disestablishment crisis threatens to impose a narrow definition of fatherhood based on biology. This new definition of fatherhood has not developed to serve any of the traditional goals of family law, protecting children and preserving family stability. Rather, this trend appears to be one of the unintended consequences of two decades of federal and state policy designed to reform the nation's welfare system. The broad goals of these policies may be well founded. But modern child support enforcement policy, so central to welfare reform and aimed most aggressively against low income fathers, is pushing fathers to seek disestablishment of paternity. In response, courts and legislatures are reinstating a construct of paternal functions defined in economic terms and grounded in biology. This new definition of fatherhood ignores other bases for fatherhood based on marriage, care taking or both. As a result, the state's interests in collecting child support, protecting children and preserving families are undermined by the very laws that should protect those interests.

Keywords: family law, paternity, disestablishment, child support, parenthood, fatherhood

JEL Classification: J39, J41, K38, K41

Suggested Citation

Murphy, Jane C., Legal Images of Fatherhood: Welfare Reform, Child Support Enforcement, and Fatherless Children (2005). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 81, No. 1, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Jane C. Murphy (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

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