Identifying unwed dads a problem in parts of S.C.

Half of all babies delivered in South Carolina hospitals were born to unwed parents last year, the state estimates.

In some rural counties, the percentage was much higher. Four out of five infants delivered at McLeod Medical Center in Dillon and 75 percent of infants at Georgetown Memorial Hospital were born to a mother and father who weren't married.

In other parts of the state, the numbers were very small - only 15 percent at East Cooper Medical Center - the lowest in South Carolina.

But state leaders are less concerned with the percentage of babies born to unwed parents than they are with the percentage of unmarried dads who are willing to step up to the plate.

The state tracks the number of unmarried fathers who formally acknowledge paternity at the hospital - and data released by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control last week shows those percentages vary widely. For example, while East Cooper Medical Center delivered 210 babies last year whose parents were not married, only 76 of those unwed dads - about 36 percent - signed a paternity acknowledgment at the hospital.

Meanwhile, at Medical University Hospital, where 53 percent of all babies were born to unmarried parents last year, more than half of those unwed fathers signed paternity acknowledgments before they left the hospital.

"It helps children feel good about themselves because they know they are wanted (and) feel secure in knowing they are part of a family with two parents who care," the Department of Social Services explains in a pamphlet called "Establishing Paternity: What a difference a Dad makes!"

If parents are married when their child is born, the husband automatically becomes the infant's legal father.

More than once, President Barack Obama has discussed the important role fathers play in a family - particularly for black children who are more likely to grow up in a single-parent household.

"I know how important it is to have a dad in your life, because I grew up without my father around," the president said in June. "I felt the weight of his absence."

Experts agree that establishing paternity is an important first step, but encouraging dads to sign these acknowledgments is more than a symbolic statewide initiative - it's also a federal mandate.

"Every state in the nation is required to have 90 percent of unmarried births establish paternity - federal law," said Bebe Lane, lead counselor for outreach for the South Carolina Parent Opportunity Program at the S.C. Department of Social Services.

Fathers can establish paternity through one of DHEC's Vital Records offices or in court, but most are encouraged to sign the paperwork before leaving the hospital, she said. "We're actually doing very well. We've seen tremendous success."

During the 2013 fiscal year, the statewide average for in-hospital paternity acknowledgments among unmarried births was 52 percent, according to data provided by DSS. The statewide goal is 60 percent, Lane said.

South Carolina has been able to meet the 90 percent federal benchmark since fiscal year 2009 because paternity acknowledgments signed after parents leave the hospital make up the difference, she said.

The state started tracking paternity acknowledgment data nearly eight years ago.