Daddy Dearest

Can the courts order a wronged father to keep quiet? David Ziskind doesn't think so.

In 1994 the Ziskinds' no-fault divorce was finalized. After fourteen years of marriage, the material sum of their lives amounted to little more than a 1993 Suzuki four-wheel drive car worth $11,000, $2000 of furniture, a fur coat, and $400 in jewelry. The court awarded all of this to Sybil, who opted to take back her maiden name, Hart. David Ziskind walked away with a Tandy computer and a canoe.

Both of them owed money. Sybil had $21,227 in school loans outstanding; Ziskind owed $10,300 in loans and $7000 in credit card debt. "In light of his education, it appears that the Husband is underemployed and needs to seek and secure employment consistent with his education (sic) background and abilities," chided Robert Jones, the family court special master who wrote their divorce report.

The court granted Ziskind visiting rights every Wednesday night for two hours and every other Sunday for the day. He was also allowed "reasonable telephonic communication." Ziskind was not happy with the arrangement. He thought he had been unfairly forced to follow his ex-wife to Miami to be close to their children. Now his contact with his children was significantly curtailed. "She was doing everything she could to keep me from visiting my kids," he says.

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The shock of losing his offspring was overwhelming, Ziskind recalls. "After the separation I had no access [to them] without her say-so," he laments. "I was reduced to begging like a kid -- 'Can Johnny come out and play?' I was taken out of the infinite daily decisions that mold their life experiences."

For instance, he says, he discovered the name of the summer camp his daughters were attending through a friend. "Do you know what it does to a father's relationship with a kid when it is drastically interfered with? Is a father someone who is just the receiver of information?"

But it's apparent from records that Ziskind was not inspiring the court's confidence. His inability to find a decent job caused him to fall behind on his child-support payments several times.

In 1994 he met Nadine Mendelsohn. Oddly enough, Jerry Turner introduced them. Mendelsohn, who had recently divorced, says the magic was immediate. "Did you ever meet somebody and know they were your soul mate?" she asks. "That's how it was with us." (They married in 1998.)

This is the second marriage for the 46-year-old. When she was 21 years old she married an Orthodox Jewish man and they lived for a time in Israel, where she was trained as a nurse. These days her energies are devoted to helping her new husband defend himself.

Dismayed by his lack of progress finding suitable work, Ziskind began exploring an obscure and fast-growing area, DNA testing. So he contacted a lab in the Midwest in an effort to set up business selling their services locally.

In the past ten years scientists have become increasingly skilled at decoding DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, to reveal an individual's heredity. They can cheaply and accurately analyze its strands to determine a person's parentage with virtual certainty.

The procedure is painless. All the lab requires are a few skin cells. Every cell in a person's body contains chromosomes. Half of a human's chromosomes are inherited from the mother and half from the father.

Technicians isolate the DNA, which is found in the chromosomes, using a series of chemical washes that break down surrounding proteins. Then they run the DNA through tests that reveal its structure. If a child and parent are related, half the chromosomes match. A battery of tests costs between $400 and $500.

"I was looking for something that might make some money," he says. "I thought DNA would be a good thing in Florida for paternity-testing and identifying dead bodies. I thought I would tap into a big demand."

To assess the speed and accuracy of the lab he contacted, Ziskind decided to test one of his children. So during a 1995 visit he crouched by his then-seven-year-old daughter Amy and asked her to open her mouth. He scraped the inside of her cheek with a swizzle sticklike tool capped by a small brush. Then he did the same to his own mouth with another brush. He sealed the brushes in plastic specimen bags and sent them via overnight mail to the lab. He didn't identify the subjects.

On October 13 the results came back: "... putative father named in this case was not found to possess the appropriate genetic type(s) ... necessary for him to be the biological father."

"Basically I thought the lab screwed up," he recalls. "I was just annoyed more than anything."

He says he never imagined his wife could have an affair, become pregnant, and never tell him. Nevertheless to give the lab a second chance, he had his older children's DNA tested. The results came back positive. And that's how David Ziskind says he learned Amy was not his daughter.

Hart has never confirmed nor denied the allegation. She became pregnant before the couple split, Ziskind says, but after he moved to Philadelphia for the highway safety job. He says he visited his family frequently enough during that period that he didn't question the pregnancy.

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