The zeal to enforce child-support payments in the wake of the 1996 welfare reforms created an unexpected group of victims: men forced to pay 18 years of support for children who are not theirs - children who, in many cases, they've never even met.
Writing in the American Bar Association's Family Law Quarterly, Washington attorney Ronald K. Henry details how this problem developed, and proposes some common-sense solutions. The problem is relatively new, and stems in large part from the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which restructured the welfare system.
The act mandates that a mother seeking welfare benefits for her child must provide the name of the child's father so the state can recoup its costs by securing a child-support order.
According to an Urban Institute study, most of the men targeted are low-income and uneducated, and the court pleadings in these child support cases are unnecessarily complex. Many men are left confused or doubtful about the seriousness of the proceedings. Moreover, substitute service, where the court summons is often left at an erroneous last known address, is frequently used instead of personal service. When the putative father does not appear at his hearing, a default paternity judgment is entered against him.
A federal report shows that in many child support enforcement offices, half or more of the paternity judgments are entered by default. Even when men obtain DNA tests clearing them of paternity, most courts rarely set aside these judgments.
As Mr. Henry points out, those men who do appear in court face a stacked deck: "The state's direct financial incentive is to establish paternity regardless of actual paternity facts."
State child support collection efforts are heavily subsidized by federal dollars. Therefore, Mr. Henry asserts, the federal government could greatly reduce the problem of false paternity establishments by reimbursing states only for establishments that are confirmed by DNA tests.
States should also act to reduce default judgments by improving service of process and by making the procedure more understandable for litigants, few of whom have legal representation. In default judgment cases, DNA testing should be required as soon as the child support enforcement agency locates the putative father. And states should pass laws or institute policies that allow fallacious paternity judgments to be retroactively challenged.
Child support debtors receive little public sympathy, at times with reason. Yet the victims of false paternity judgments aren't men trying to evade their legitimate responsibilities. They are instead victims of an injustice that cries out for redress.
Mike McCormick is the executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. Glenn Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of newspapers in the United States.