Each year, Virginia must make sure at least 90% of children born out of wedlock have fathers identified on their birth certificates in order to receive maximum federal funding for low-income families living in the commonwealth. 

According to the Virginia Paternity Establishment Program, the state has been exceeding these requirements for at least a decade, even as over one-third of all births in the commonwealth continue to come from unmarried women. 

VPEP program manager Yesenia Peiker said in 2022, Virginia had a 92% paternal establishment rate. While the commonwealth’s average rate in hospitals is 77%, Peiker said factoring in births that occur outside of hospitals is what puts Virginia ahead of the curve.

This story was reported and written by The Virginia Mercury

Additionally, Peiker said Virginia’s paternal establishment rates remained high during the COVID-19 pandemic as other states’ rates plummeted. After those states received “warning” letters from the U.S. Office of Child Support Services in 2020 that they could be subject to financial penalties if they didn’t get their percentages up, the federal threshold was lowered to 50% through the end of the 2022 federal fiscal year.

Virginia’s performance is especially notable, Peiker said, considering its program is structured around people reporting paternity on a voluntary basis — unlike some states that require a DNA test or court order to establish paternity for any child born to unmarried parents. 

Why does the government care about paternity? Peiker said the reason is that “babies who are born to unmarried parents do not have the same rights as babies born to married parents in the commonwealth of Virginia unless paternity is established.”

For example, “if paternity was not established, if the father died, the baby does not have automatic rights to death benefits like life insurance,” Peiker said. “Any kind — like if he was in the military, the military benefits, or if he hit the lottery and you know, won a billion dollars, if paternity was not established, they have no access to that money.”

Children without established paternity, she said, also do not have access to their father’s health records.

To encourage greater legal identification of fathers, the federal government in 1996 included a requirement in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, which provides benefits and services to families with children in need, that states promote the maintenance of two-parent families. 

According to the U.S. Child Enforcement Program, this was because prior to 1970, the majority of children who needed financial assistance required it because their fathers had died. By the 1970s, the majority needed aid because their parents were separated, divorced or never married.

In Virginia, health and human services consulting company Veritas-HHS operates the Paternity Establishment Program through a contract with the Department of Social Services. The program encourages unmarried fathers to voluntarily establish paternity of their newborn child during the mother and child’s stay at the hospital.

An unmarried woman who gives birth at any of the 53 birthing hospitals around the state can have the father of her child acknowledge his parenthood by filling out an Acknowledgement of Paternity form. 

The father must then fill out another legal document outlining that the father essentially has all of the rights and responsibilities to his child that a married father would have. 

Yesenia said it’s an easy and fast process that doesn’t have a statute of limitations, so paternity can be established even after the hospital visit by downloading the Acknowledgement of Paternity form — found on the websites for VPEP’s website, the Virginia Department of Health or the Virginia Department of Social Services — filling it out, getting it notarized by a birth registrar and submitting it to the state’s Office of Vital Records. 

“Virginia has designed it in such a way where it makes it easy for parents to go ahead and add the dad,” Peiker said. “These rates are spectacular, but I would love for more people to know about — especially for their children — again, that their kids don’t have the same rights as children born to married parents.”