ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He shows me so many photos of the baby girl that I can’t help but wonder whether a single moment in this child’s young life hasn’t been memorialized in a cellphone snapshot.
Here are the blurry ultrasound images of the baby in the womb that he keeps on his refrigerator door at his home in Belen. Here is her crinkly little face moments after she came into the world Oct. 1, 2017. Here she is smiling. Here she is sleeping. Here she is awake.
And videos? He’s got those, too.
It’s typical proud dad stuff.
But Lee Chavez, 28, isn’t a typical proud dad.
And if you ask the baby’s mother, he’s not a dad at all.
“I told him from the start that the baby wasn’t his, and he was OK with that,” said Cassandra Castleberry, 22. “He knows he’s not the dad.”
Not true, Chavez said.
“From the beginning, I was the baby’s daddy,” said Chavez, who has taken Castleberry to court to prove that. “I’ve been there since before Day One.”
Castleberry, who lives in Los Lunas, doesn’t want him there – not just because she says he’s not her baby’s father but because she says he is abusive.
According to a petition for an order of protection she filed in May with the 13th Judicial District Court in Valencia County, Castleberry accuses Chavez of pinning her by the throat and choking her until she nearly passed out – an allegation Chavez denies.
Curiously, the petition says the incident happened in 2016. No police were called to that incident or any other, she said. A check of Chavez’s background found no record of domestic violence.
In addition, the petition accuses Chavez of controlling where she works, whom she sees and what she is allowed to spend money on. The petition also claims he told her that if he were to “kill someone, they would never be found.”
Domestic Violence Commissioner Geoffrey Nims of the 13th Judicial District granted Castleberry her protection order and gave her legal and physical custody of the baby in May.
But Nims also granted Chavez weekend visits with the baby.
An emergency motion to stop those visits and to force Chavez to take a DNA test to prove he is not the father was filed on Castleberry’s behalf by attorney Greg Payne, but no action is expected to be taken until a hearing Oct. 25 before state District Judge Allen Smith of Los Lunas.
“This court has known since May that there was a question about parentage but has chosen instead to force a relationship between the alleged father/abuser and the minor child,” Payne said. “Why not just order a DNA test? Why prolong a situation between a mom and her minor child – and someone who isn’t actually dad – when there’s a finding of domestic abuse and the abuser refuses to take a DNA test?”
Chavez insists he will not take the test. Being a dad, he said, is more than genetics.
And there is the matter of the baby’s birth certificate, which lists Chavez as the father. An acknowledgment of paternity, required when the mother is unmarried and signed under penalty of perjury, also lists Chavez as the father.
Castleberry said she was coerced and under duress and threat of harm and abuse into naming Chavez as the father – another allegation Chavez denies.
The two of them had an on-again, off-again relationship for four years and were once engaged. They were off again in December 2016, which is when Castleberry believes she became pregnant by another man, who left before she could tell him.
So she went back to Chavez.
“It seemed like the best option for me and for her,” she said. “My child would have a dad, but I made it clear he wasn’t the dad. He even said to me that if he could still love me knowing that, then he must really love me.”
But love was fickle – she blames his bullying abuse, he blames her postpartum depression and jealousy of his attention to the baby.
And then the other man came back into the picture. An at-home DNA testing kit performed on the man to establish his paternity was done, but the results came back inconclusive, Castleberry said. They are waiting for a second kit to retest.
The other man has not filed in court to establish paternity.
Chavez’s attorney, Helene Garduno Dobbins, said her client had not known that his paternity was in question until Castleberry filed for the protection order.
“Lee has provided for this child, anything she has ever needed,” Dobbins said. “He’s been a dad. He’s accepted responsibility for her. He loves this little girl. It breaks my heart that we’re at this point where Mom wants to play this game.”
Chavez said he wants to have joint custody of the child and to co-parent with Castleberry, though he said he knows their relationship is “water under the bridge.” He is also willing to pay child support.
Castleberry said she doesn’t want his money. She wants him to take the DNA test, and she wants him gone.
Chavez shows me more photos, including one that reads “Daddy Loves You.”
It will be up to a judge to decide whether being Daddy is more biology than bond.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.