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Child Support: Guilty Until Proven Innocent\Commentary\archive\200203\COM20020321a.html
March 21, 2002

Child Support: Guilty Until Proven Innocent
by Dianna Thompson

After years of so-called social reforms aimed at marginalizing divorced
fathers, White House and Congressional leaders have wised up.

In recent weeks, both camps have taken tentative public steps toward
easing up aggressive prosecution of non-custodial fathers who are poor
after coming to a startling realization: Punishing these men for falling
behind in child support obligations makes little sense. Worse, children
lose a vital player in their childhood development when government
agencies chase non-custodial fathers out of their children's lives.

Yet another casualty of our nation's fervent war on so-called "deadbeat
dads" is the thousands of men assigned default child support judgments.
In California, the state's Department of Child Support Services has a very
serious problem finding men who may have fathered children, and as a
result, 79 percent of the judgments it receives in L.A. County alone are
assigned by default, meaning the suspected father never had his day in court.

By many standards, default judgments would be fair, if the fathers were
actually served notice to appear in court. Unfortunately, the truth is
this: State agencies who claim they don't know the whereabouts of an
alleged father seem to have little trouble tracking him down to collect
child support. Ironically, men who have not fathered children can instantly
turn into "dads" once the court enters a default judgment. Once applied,
that label is difficult, if not impossible, to remove as state agencies and
district attorneys frequently fight such appeals, challenging anyone who
fails to respond to a court summons - even one served to a last-known
address, regardless of whether the individual received the notice.

In his best-selling book "Bias," Bernard Goldberg chronicles the inner
workings of the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office and its efforts at
obtaining paternity collections. According to Goldberg, then-District
Attorney Gil Garcetti obtained default judgments of paternity after
failing to notify "fathers" of court hearings. Once the court established
paternity, Garcetti refused to rescind judgments against men who later
proved through DNA evidence that they were not the fathers of their
alleged children.

More than 11 million fathers do not live with their children. Child support
collections have grown to more than $18 billion annual nationwide.
As states legislators moved to aggressively pursue collection of support
obligations, state officials oftentimes struggled to identify the paternity
of children who do not live with their biological fathers. In doing so,
thousands of innocent men were mistakenly identified as having fathered
children that did not belong to them. In many cases, the men were
never notified in advance of court hearings to determine paternity.

High rates of default judgments may be attributed to a variety of factors,
chief among them are the state's lax efforts to track down biological
fathers. In order to obtain a court order establishing paternity, state agencies
can serve a person's last-know address, which proves problematic when
a suspected parent moves. The stories of child support enforcement
blunders have become all too familiar to the thousands of families who
receive error-ridden collection notices, including: cases of mistaken
identity among people with similar names; billing errors, and bills assigned
to men who did not father children assigned them by court order.

Federal funding guidelines place a higher value on assigning paternity and
obtaining child-support collection orders than on the truth. Although
federal rules require states meet their compliance rates in assigning
paternity and obtaining orders for child support, the guidelines do not
require actual DNA testing. As a result, agencies find themselves
comfortable with high rates of default judgments against suspected dads,
men who will often battle the courts to remove judgments placed against
them when DNA has proven they are excluded from being the father of
the children assigned them by court order.

The real motives behind L.A. County's 79 percent default-judgment rate -
and those of similar counties and states -- no doubt lies in its efforts
to keep the pipeline of Federal subsidies and incentive payments flowing.
The State of California has known since as early as 1998 that its
automated system for tracking down dads frequently assigns payments to
the wrong men. Once a problem of a few hundred men forced to pay child
support for children that weren't theirs, the issue has exploded to a 79
percent default rate in L.A. County alone. Not one of these men have ever
appeared in court or been verified through genetic testing to have fathered
the children assigned them by court order.

States have at their disposal the power and tools to ensure accuracy in
child support orders. By requiring court appearances and DNA testing,
courts can ensure they know with absolute certainty who is a father before
entering a finding of paternity. At the same time, courts must stand up to
enforcement agencies that claim they cannot locate men who are subjects of
motions to establish paternity. Courts must also hold mothers accountable
when they knowingly make false statements regarding paternity to state

We must settle for nothing short of the truth before forcing innocent men
to be responsible for children they never fathered.

Dianna Thompson is a nationally recognized expert on families and
divorce-related issues. She serves as executive director of the American
Coalition for Fathers & Children [ ].

Copyright 1998-2002 Cybercast News Service.
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