Prince George's judge takes new tack on paternity suits

April 25, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

UPPER MARLBORO -- Law clerk Wendy Karpel, bullhorn in hand, climbed on a ledge inside the Prince George's County courthouse.

From this vantage point, the scene looked like a casting call for a baby-food commercial. Babies seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the cramped waiting area -- crying babies, screaming babies, babies in their Sunday best.

Above the din, Ms. Karpel reeled off the cases now wanted before Judge David Gray Ross. Weighed down with diaper bags, car seats and strollers, adults collected the children and moved into the courtroom. Some sat together as families, but others broke into distinctive camps -- women and children on one side, men on another.

Paternity court was in session.

Courts in many places nationally are used to argue and decide responsibility in out-of-wedlock births, but no one does it quite like Prince George's County, where Judge Ross pioneered what he calls the "one-stop shopping" concept in paternity establishment.

Two days a month, paternity court takes over the old courthouse's ground floor, providing everything from blood testing to job placement.

The judge hears up to 150 cases in a typical day. About half will result in support orders; others will be set for trial, pending the results of the blood tests.

"I've been all over the country, telling people about what we do," says the judge. "I don't think they believe me. At the end of it all, theyjust say, 'Well, we can't do it.' "

The innovative court proceedings were the first of their kind in the nation and, with the help of Judge Ross, who is a tireless promoter, have been copied in paternity courts in Florida, California and Ohio.

J. Michael McWilliams, president of the American Bar Association and a senior partner in the Baltimore law firm of Tydings & Rosenberg, marveled at the Prince George's court and said it is successful because of its efficiency.

Meg J. Sollenberger, director of the state's Child Support Enforcement Administration, said Prince George's had made a commitment to child support that other Maryland counties and the city of Baltimore are not willing to make.

"Without Judge Ross, that system would be hard to duplicate," she said.

The judge and his staff run easily through their routines, moving people through the system as quickly as possible. But the judge makes a point of reminding each possible father of the responsibilities he will accept if he admits paternity.

"Eighteen years is a long time to be a parent," Judge Ross says.

Admit you're the father? Head to Room 12.

In Room 12, the child-support enforcement officer will draw up a support order. If the parents don't agree with the officer, they see a master, who has the authority to mediate disputes about support and custody -- separate legal issues that inevitably become intertwined.

If a man denies fatherhood, go to Room 10.

In Room 10, technicians from a Baltimore lab draw blood samples from the mother, child and putative father. Test results are back within 10 days; the men are given a trial date before they leave the courtroom. If they call before trial, a taped recording will run down the list of those excluded by the tests.

Cases are often complicated

Unemployed men can meet with a job counselor. If they agree to job training, their support order will be $5 a week, just to get them in the habit of paying. Meanwhile, sheriff's deputies make runs through the county, rounding up those who have missed their court dates.

During a recent session, Judge Ross ran through 132 cases in six hours. The majority of men readily admitted paternity, appearing in court alongside their families. Of those, 34 signed support orders.

The other cases were complicated by the usual consequences of love affairs gone sour -- jealousy, rage, humiliation, pain. It doesn't help when one's "ex" shows up with a new man or woman.

Arms crossed, eyes averted -- the body language of paternity court is readily discernible. An observer learns to predict who will request a blood test and who will simply agree he is the father.

"I'm not outright denying, but I want to be sure," John C. Carter said as he stood before the judge. Doing so will cost Mr. Carter $213 -- the price of three blood tests -- if he is proven to be the father, nothing if the test rules him out.

The blood-test waiting area is prone to fights, as is the courtroom, where five sheriff's deputies are assigned.

"We have more fights than any other courtroom in the building," Judge Ross says. Being called to paternity court and ending up serving a 120-day sentence for assault is not unheard of.

A famous fight

In perhaps the most famous fight, one man bit another man's ear off. The first man was angry because he was not the father. The second man, the mother's new boyfriend, tried to intercede when the old boyfriend began hitting the mother.

On this particular April day, violent impulses were kept in check. But one could almost feel the current of bitterness running through the waiting area.

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