The hidden half of domestic violence
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Paying for Other's Children
Published Tuesday, June 5, 2001
Man fights paying for two kids who are not his But he did paternity test after deadline
BY DAVID GREEN email@example.com
Two years ago, Ricky Thomas opened his paycheck from the Coca Cola bottling plant, where he drives a forklift. His eyes widened.
Thomas discovered the state was deducting child support for two children -- despite a paternity test that proved he wasn't their father, according to Miami-Dade Circuit Court documents.
About $8,000 later, Thomas is still trying to get the state to stop garnisheeing his wages.
``Me and my wife can't even afford to have kids of our own,'' said the 26-year-old North Miami resident, who earns about $12 an hour. ``The most I could afford right now is a cat.''
Thomas is not alone. Of the billions of dollars collected each year in child support -- $16 billion in 1999, according to federal statistics -- a growing amount comes from men who are being forced to pay despite having proof that the children are not theirs, according to child-support advocates.
``This is happening like you wouldn't believe,'' said Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, a California-based nonprofit group. ``We get probably 50 calls a week like this.''
Thomas' case began in 1994 when he was working as a machine operator at a Ritz Soda plant and living in Opa-locka. A friend introduced him to Tresa Forrester.
The pair started dating.
Before long, Forrester gave birth to a boy. Two years later, she had a daughter.
``She said she hadn't been with anyone else,'' Thomas said in an interview last week. ``I thought they were my kids.''
He gave her and the children money, Thomas said.
He brought over diapers and baby formula.
Around that time, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.One of its provisions: Women on welfare had to identify the father of their children, according to Kay Cullen of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, a child-support advocacy organization.
That allowed the state to recoup some of its expenses by garnisheeing the father's wages, Cullen said.
That same year, the state demanded Forrester identify the father of her children. She gave them Thomas' name.
He signed papers that amounted to his agreeing he was their dad. Then one of the children showed characteristics of sickle-cell anemia.
NOT THE FATHER
Thomas' father told him their family had been tested for the disease and did not have it in their genes. His advice to Thomas: Get a paternity test.
In April 1997, Thomas went with Forrester and the two children to a paternity-testing clinic near Miami International Airport. Each submitted to a cheek swab.
The results came back a month later -- Thomas was not the children's father.
Forrester, reached by phone last week, refused to discuss the case, saying, ``I don't need this.''
But Thomas said he's still shaken by what the tests revealed. ``To be betrayed like that,'' he said, ``that hurts.''
What Thomas didn't realize was that by state law, fathers have only one year to contest paternity. By the time he opened his paycheck at the Coca Cola plant that day, the window had closed.
Thomas immediately called a lawyer.
``I tried to find out who's making the decisions,'' said attorney Steven Singer. ``I just couldn't get to the bottom of it. Nobody seems to be accountable.''
Singer filed suit for the state to stop garnisheeing Thomas' wages -- and to pay back what it has taken.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sandy Karlin has not issued a ruling. The state attorney's office -- which oversees child support for the state in Miami-Dade County -- refused to comment.
Said spokesman Ed Griffith: ``Since this case is before a judge, we think it's entirely inappropriate for parties to comment in any way that may be construed as attempting to influence the judge's decision.''
What landed Thomas and others like him in this predicament depends on whom you ask.
According to the fathers' rights movement, the problem is the 1996 federal legislation.
Critics like Thompson say it offers child-support agencies monetary incentives if they establish paternity in a certain percentage of cases. The greater the number they establish, the more money they get from the federal government.
The Florida Department of Revenue, which handles child support in the state, received about $140 million for child support operations last fiscal year, according to spokesman Dave Bruns. The state provided nearly $80 million, money in part reimbursed from child support payments.
Thompson, Cullen and others acknowledge that the federal incentives may encourage agencies to go after men for child support -- even when tests show they're not the father.
``These agencies have to locate who the fathers are to get federal money,'' Thompson said. ``They don't care who they peg, as long as they get someone.''
Bruns denies that. On occasion, Bruns said, his agency does collect child-support payments from men who turn out not to be fathers. But Bruns said those cases were accidents created by circumstance and matters for state court judges to rectify.
New genetic tests are spurring the growing number of men who turn out not to be biological fathers, Bruns said. The cheek swabs Thomas took are easier and more accurate than old-fashioned blood tests, he said -- prompting more men to come forward and challenge paternity.
In 1999, about one-third of the 11,000 men that the state of Florida tested turned out not to be the child's biological father, according to Bruns. Although exact figures are not available, Bruns said some had already paid child support for more than a year and so were legally obligated to continue.
Some, like Thomas, have asked judges for relief.
Two such cases have made it to the Florida Supreme Court, Bruns said; decisions are pending.
That he is not alone in his predicament is of little consolation to Thomas.
``To be paying for someone else's responsibilities is rough,'' he said.
``. . . I feel sorry for what the kids are going through, but I don't think I should be at fault.''
MH Home: http://www.miami.com/herald/ Copyright 2001 Miami Herald
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