LIKE ANY PROUD FATHER, TOM Cihlar lights up when recalling his 6-year-old son's early years: the autumn morning in 1991 when he first set eyes on newborn Sean, the little boy's first tottering steps, the perils of potty training. "I could never fill the void if Sean wasn't in my life," he says.
Yet Cihlar, 28, of Hendersonville, Tenn., faces just that possibility as he finds himself in the middle of a bizarre legal quagmire. Though there is virtually no question he is Sean's biological father, a Tennessee state court must decide in the coming months whether he has the right to be considered the boy's parent at all. What has thrown Cihlar's life into disarray is an archaic and little-known 19th-century statute that could cost him all contact with the son he loves. "The hardest part," he says, "is that it's such an all-or-nothing thing."
He could never have imagined such a predicament in December 1990, when he started dating Mary Crawford, then 20, a maintenance worker he'd met through a mutual friend. "She was real shy," recalls Cihlar (pronounced SY-ler), assistant manager of an auto-body shop, "but we laughed, joked around, had fun." Although neither took the relationship particularly seriously, Crawford eventually moved in with Cihlar. A few months later she discovered that she was pregnant, and abruptly moved out. Then came more news: She had been married all along. "I almost dropped the phone," he recalls. "I said, 'You're what?' "
As it turned out, Crawford was separated from Shane Crawford, now 29, the plumber she had married nearly three years earlier, but they had never divorced. Nevertheless, Cihlar was in touch with Crawford during her pregnancy. They discussed names for their child and shopped for baby clothes, but never talked about a future together. When it came time for Crawford to deliver, Cihlar was at the hospital, eagerly greeting Sean minutes after his birth. "Oh, he was adorable," says Cihlar. "The first thing I wanted to do was grab him and hold him."
Over the next 2½ years, Cihlar's relationship with Crawford—still married to Shane—remained friendly, and Sean stayed at his apartment virtually every weekend and on most holidays. Cihlar says he paid for diapers and clothing and sent Crawford $50 a week for the baby. "He took his first steps toward me. I potty-trained him," says Cihlar. "I knew I was his dad."
Simply knowing, however, wasn't enough. In 1994 friends warned Cihlar he should be concerned about what might become of 3-year-old Sean if Mary left the state—or, worse, if she died. A lawyer advised him to secure a written acknowledgment of paternity. "I thought this was going to be real simple," says Cihlar. But then he learned that Mary Crawford's husband was listed on the birth certificate as Sean's father, and Shane Crawford—who had developed his own paternal bond with Sean—refused to sign a form acknowledging otherwise. To make matters worse, when Cihlar asked a court to formally recognize his paternity, Mary abruptly cut off his access to Sean. "I was highly aggravated; I stewed all weekend," says Cihlar. "But I knew if I stopped then, I'd never see Sean again."
That, it seemed, would be just fine with his onetime lover, who claimed she wasn't sure Cihlar was the father after all. "He's caused my family so many problems," says Mary, now working as an exotic dancer 15 miles away in Nashville. She claims Cihlar knew all along she was married. "I wish he'd leave us alone, but he keeps sticking his head in."
That October, to prove his paternity, Cihlar had a blood test, considered 99.8 percent reliable, that confirmed he is Sean's father. The following month a circuit court judge acknowledged Cihlar's paternity and set up a formal child support and visitation schedule, giving him Sean on alternate weekends. "I just wanted to hang on to him," says Cihlar, who had been separated from his son for four months. "I hugged him, and I didn't want to let go."
Cihlar was concerned, however, about the care the boy was receiving from Mary Crawford and took steps to obtain full custody. In time the Crawfords took the matter to the appellate court, which overturned the earlier circuit court ruling. Its authority: an 1805 Tennessee law stipulating that a child born to a married woman is legally her husband's child—period.
"My reaction was, this can't be right, this can't be the law," says Cihlar. Married since June 1996 to MiSchelle Taylor, a beautician who is the mother of a son, 11, and a daughter, 7, he has pursued his paternity suit all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, whose ruling could come at any time. Allowed to keep his visitation rights pending a final decision, Cihlar was not content merely to wait to hear his child's fate—"I needed to be doing something," he says. He and MiSchelle sent letters to 38 Tennessee legislators, urging them to change the law. His case was instrumental in persuading the legislature to approve a new statute in July allowing men in his position to petition for paternity. "It's a milestone," says family-law expert Ellen Clayton of Vanderbilt University, who says until now "the woman had control over whether or not the father could have his paternity recognized."
A significant victory, the change has no bearing on Cihlar's own case, which must be decided in light of the law in effect at the time of Sean's birth. Cihlar has asked the court to strike down the 1805 statute as unconstitutional. Whatever the outcome, Sean—a fan of Sega video games and Michael Jordan—may remain the object of a legal tug-of-war for a long time to come. "I'm 99 percent his father," says Shane Crawford. "I don't accept Tom as his blood father because I don't want to." Cihlar hopes the court will settle the issue. "Not a weekend goes by that I don't tell Sean that I love him, that I'll see him in two weeks," he says. "I hope I will."
BARBARA SANDLER in Nashville
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