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Dad Wrong
Attention, men! You, too, can be a father! Father of a child you've never met; whose mother you've never had sex with, nor even seen -- a father who owes a considerable sum of child-support to that mother of that child you didn't father.

Matt Welch has done a masterful investigative piece in the February 2004 Reason magazine on the terribly scary fraud being perpetuated on men in the name of welfare reform: any woman can name any man -- even one she's never met -- as the father of her child, and if he doesn't fight back (and fast) -- he could end up losing everything. Yes, everything. "A name, race, vague location, and a broad age range is sufficient to launch a process that" can cause a man who is not the child's father to have his wages garnished and his passport blocked, and have liens put on his assets.

It isn't even a crime for the mother to name the wrong man. Welch notes that "for both the mother and the state, the punishment for making a mistake is indirect, in the form of receiving less child support." But, the man's credit -- and his life -- can be ruined in the process.

It all boils down to paperwork. If the alleged father doesn't get, or ignores the (confusing) notice to respond to the paternity charge, he has a limited time to contest it before he's assumed to be daddy in the eyes of the law -- whether or not he actually is. Welch reports that the accused father has 30 days to respond to a paternity complaint (it helps if the complaint form has actually gotten to him, but in many cases it never did). Then, he has 180 days to contest a child support order, and two years from birth to challenge paternity using DNA evidence. "If," Welch writes, "for whatever reasons, any of these deadlines aren't met, no amount of evidence can move the state to review the case; the DCSS has to be sued." Unfortunately...

...Family cases typically hew to the "finality of judgment" principle to prevent disruptions in children's lives. Or, in the words of former California legislator Rod Wright, "It ain't your kid, you can prove it ain't your kid, and they say, 'So what?'"

That's how a man like Taron James could be slapped with a support bill for thousands of dollars from Los Angeles County in 2002, and continue to be barred from using his notary public license, even after producing convincing DNA evidence and notarized testimony from the mother that her 11-year-old son, whom he's seen exactly once and looks nothing like, is not his child and that she no longer seeks his support. James says his name was placed on the child's birth certificate without his consent while he was on a Navy tour of duty; then the mother refused to take blood tests for eight years, and he became aware of a default order against him only when the Department Of Motor Vehicles refused to issue him a driver's license in October 1996. By that time, James had missed all the relevant deadlines, the court was unimpressed with his tale of woe, and he has since coughed up $14,000 in child support via liens and garnishments.

Hideous stuff. Terribly wrong. It's clear what's right here, and all lawmakers like Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who oppose paternity-related reform bills, should be voted out post-haste.

Personally, I would like to take the rights of men a step further. I don't think any man who doesn't want to be a father -- and clearly expresses that to a woman -- should be forced to pay for any child that ensues from having sex. Because a woman is the one who gets pregnant, if paying for and raising a child as a single mother is a problem for a particular woman, she needs to take steps -- and double steps -- to prevent pregnancy -- or be ready to have an abortion or give up the baby after it's born. Men shouldn't be forced into financing fatherhood -- by anyone -- be it a fuckbuddy or a representative of the state.

NOTE: To read Matt Welch's piece right now, buy the February 2004 Reason at any really good newsstand near you. When the link is up on the magazine's site, I'll put it up on my Web site, too.

Posted by aalkon at January 19, 2004 9:04 AM


Yes, for sure this is an area that needs to be addressed, like yesterday. I think you go a tad too far, though. I don't buy the argument that if you actually receive the notice, then you should have some unlimited amount of time to fight it. (For example, if you sign for a certified letter.) I mean, even if it is confusing, then please, go find someone to explain it to you.

Even if there is no evidence of actual delivery, then you have the problem of the guy who screws and runs without leaving a forwarding address. It can take some time to track him down. Why should the mother wait to bring the paternity action?

Your suggestion of being able to disclaim financial responsibility in advance for any child that results from sex is not going to fly. If putting the onus on the woman to be careful is good, then putting it on both the man and the woman is better. You also have the small matter of proof. Does it have to be in writing? Notarized? Can you disclaim responsibility for all future times you have sex, or is one agreement good for one time only? And what happens to a child whose father has disclaimed liability and whose mother dies?

Posted by: Mithras at January 19, 2004 2:53 AM

The woman who wrongfully accused Taron James should be forced to repay him the $14,000 plus interest. (Of course, that puts an unfair disadvantage on the child. Perhaps they could wait until the child is 18?) Maybe it would serve to make others act more responsibly before fingering an innocent man once his lack of paternity has been established.

This might sound sexist, but I honestly think the burden of responsibility does fall on the woman to prevent unwanted pregnancy. She's the one who has to carry the child to term and give birth to it. That, in and of itself, should serve as sufficient deterrent to take precautions and act responsibly. Some of these people -- men and women -- need to think about what they have to lose before they jump into the sack. And as long as the state awards women the sole right to decide what to do when she discovers she's pregnant -- the man has NO rights when it comes to decisions about whether or not to have the child, keep it or give it up for adoption -- then why does the man have to cough up for a child when he had no say as to keeping it? Why does the woman suddenly have all rights regarding the child's future? In spite of the laws, collecting can be difficult.

My own sister, married to a man for over 15 finally got wise and realized that she married an ill-tempered boor and divorced the creep and found someone more to her liking. (I can't stand her new boyfriend, myself, but I don't have to marry him. I prefer guys that can shut up once in a while.) Sis' first husband quit his job and started working as a bartender. Since the bulk of his pay comes in the form of unreported tips, he can cry inability to pay child support and not have to pay anything. Of course, he'll get his, I think. Bartending doesn't come with retirement and pension and all that, and he did have to give up the job that did that for him. Well, he didn't HAVE to. He just chose to so he wouldn't have to support his own kids, who are now either in college or high school.

Posted by: Patrick at January 19, 2004 5:21 AM

Unfortunately, the link to the piece is not up yet, so it's not clear from what I posted above that the service can be sloppy or nonexistent, but even if you never get the notice, you're screwed. Mothers are giving the loosest guess about the looks of the supposed father -- Mithras Jones, 6'1", white -- and that's enough to turn you into a dad -- even if you're 5'5" and Chinese -- if you don't reply to the notice in time.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 19, 2004 6:40 AM

I agree with almost all these comments, with the caveat that someone in my own family has acted in the most craven of ways regarding paternity, to wit: my stepbrother carried on a years-long affair while he was married, one of those, "I'll divorce my wife for you" deals; the woman became pregnant, and he freaked; said he wanted nothing to do with her or their baby; she said, okay, but I'm having this baby. In the meantime, his wife found out and divorced him, the pregnant lover moved away, got married, lived for ten years raising their daughter alone (she'd written asking if he wanted to meet her; he never answered), never asked for a penny, etc. A few years ago, when the woman moved back to the Northeast, she wrote my stepbrother a letter: our daughter is a lovely girl, we're back in this part of the world and she'd like to meet her dad. The woman did not want a dime. My stepbrother FREAKED THE HELL OUT, she's going to sue me! She'll want child support! Meanwhile, he never told HER this, never responded to her mail, but cried to his daddy (note: my stepbrother is 47 years old), who took his side, evil evil woman, how dare she have the temerity to want to introduce this child to her father, IT MUST BE ALL ABOUT MONEY! My mother is incensed at the weakness of her stepson and her husband, and has taken it upon herself to form a relationship with the child, and the child's mother; a frigging grandparenting relationship; the woman wants no money, she just wanted her child to meet her father; gee, you might think he'd be interested, too, but it is easier for him to cry, IT'S ALL ABOUT MONEY than to admit that he's a big baby himself.

Posted by: nancy at January 19, 2004 8:16 AM

Nancy, regarding your step brother, he's got my brother in law beat regarding craven ways. Just goes to show you, you don't need any skills to be a father, just working testicles. I did say the burden of responsibility falls on the woman regarding pregnancy, but let's be clear that I believe that only so long as the state gives the woman EXCLUSIVE rights to decide what happens to the baby. On the other hand, I don't see what good a 50-50 split in the decision making process would do, if they can't agree on what to do with the child. Maybe men who don't want kids should just castrate themselves.

Posted by: Patrick at January 19, 2004 8:44 AM

Wow! Now I understand why this happened to my brother. He received a notice at work stating that he was being named in a parternity suit in Mono County, CA. He not only didn't know anyone from Mono County (we're from Orange County), he had never been there and was faithfully married at the time.

Turns out the woman had named "John C." as the father, and 37 men named John C. had been served with the paternity paperwork in California!!! So my brother's reputation at work was at risk for being a philanderer for a woman whom he had never met, never had sex with, and with whom he could not possibly have fathered a child.

I thought it was horrendous at the time, but I had no idea how widespread the problem was.

Posted by: Peggy C at January 19, 2004 8:46 AM

When Rod Wright was in the Assembly, I worked with him on due process for child support obligors, and also sat on some boards and commissions on these things, such as a Family Court oversight committee and the Dept. of Child Support Services fathers and advocates committee, so I have a little background on how this all works.

It is a fact that the Dept. of Child Support can obtain a paternity judgment against a man without even serving him with papers; not by personal service, and not even by mail service. They can, and often do, use service by publication which means they put a little classified ad in the paper, maybe even a legal paper that normal people don't read, and the clock starts ticking on your thirty day window to contest the judgment. According to legend, a woman in San Francisco by name of Jimmie Johnson was named father of a child in Los Angeles. I don't know if that really happened, but it's plausible given the state of the law. Having a common name is risky business in California.

Once a person has been named the legal father of a child, he (or she) can't have the system corrected even if they have DNA evidence that they're not the father. Wright tried twice to pass bills that would allow this escape route for innocent victims of the system, but Kuehl killed the first in committee and Grey Davis vetoed the other. We're not talking about Deadbeat Dads here, we're talking about random strangers, and it could happen to you.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at January 19, 2004 11:01 AM

All this is why men who aren't married to the mothers of their children shouldn't be required by the state to pay child support -- except, possibly, a bare minimum to offset what the state pays welfare mothers. And neither should they have any legal rights regarding these children, such as trying to prevent (as some have) a mother from putting her baby up for adoption.

Posted by: Cathy Seipp at January 19, 2004 11:11 AM

As a feminist, I am sympathetic with a lot that's said here. If I'm going to be pro-choice, then I have to agree with the premise that the woman needs to be totally responsible for the child if she decides to have it.

But there's still the fact that men are physically stronger than women, and can force them to have unprotected sex. This happens even in marriages, not to mention date rape, etc. People who say "the time to choose is in the bedroom or the back seat" aren't taking this into account. For instance: if a man comes home, wakes his wife/partner to have sex and won't take no for an answer, she isn't someone who can use or afford the pill (lots of women can't), and he won't give her time to use a contraceptive (remember, those use-ahead sponges were taken off the market) or use a condom himself--what then?

Posted by: holland at January 20, 2004 6:37 AM

If we can't craft a law that can protect women who choose bad partners[1] without screwing men who weren't even involved with the woman in question, it's unclear why we should choose to protect said women at the expense of the uninvolved men.

One of the constants of men/women debates is that someone always argues for something indefensible by pointing out that certain people make choices that have horrible and completely forseeable consequences. The argument is often a non sequitor, unless the arguer actually thinks that a horrible result can be used to justify anything.

[1] One kind of bad partner is someone who won't let their mate deal with birth control.

Posted by: Andy Freeman at January 20, 2004 7:35 AM

> The woman who wrongfully accused Taron James should be forced to repay him the $14,000 plus interest. (Of course, that puts an unfair disadvantage on the child. Perhaps they could wait until the child is 18?)

If she'd robbed a bank, we wouldn't be arguing that she shouldn't have to repay until the child is 18.

Plus, he benefitted from the $14k - why is it a hardship for him to give up what he got?

Posted by: Andy Freeman at January 20, 2004 7:38 AM

Andy --

I had to read this one a few times:

"One of the constants of men/women debates is that someone always argues for something indefensible by pointing out that certain people make choices that have horrible and completely forseeable consequences. The argument is often a non sequitor, unless the arguer actually thinks that a horrible result can be used to justify anything."

Sounds interesting. In what other men/women debates have you seen this constant?

Posted by: Little Lena Lamby at January 20, 2004 8:02 AM

As with everything, things swing one way, then the other. It is abuses like this that will cause things to swing back the other way.

Part of the problem is that the law has not caught up with technology. Much of paternity law predates modern DNA testing. Today, it would be trivial for the law to mandate DNA testing before a court could declare a man the father of a child.

Of course, the feminists and the state child welfare establishment would go berserk over this, but in the end, they would find themselves arguing that assessing any man child support is preferable to figuring out who the father actually was.

I have little sympathy with women who can not positively identify the men they sleep with, with the extremely rare exception of stranger rape. Why are they alone with a man they cannot identify?

Notice by publication should not really be that much of a problem, as it will typically violate Due Process - and Due Process violations typically are not subject to finality of judgment arguments.

That said, the real problem is that many, if not most, men are not in a financial or educational position to properly respond to a paternity summons and complaint. The deck is seriously stacked against them, esp. when facing state child welfare workers who are often 1) extremely skilled at this, and 2) anti-male.

Posted by: Bruce Hayden at January 20, 2004 8:48 AM

"maybe men who don't want children should castrate themselves" What! Are you sure you don't mean "vasectomy"?

Posted by: winston at January 20, 2004 9:24 AM

The Victorians had Bastardy Laws doing what Cathy suggests, and they were a disaster setting off epidemics of infanticide and baby-selling.

No serious person believes that unmarried men shouldn't have any sort of obligation toward their children and the corresponding rights to custody and visitation. Just because the parents are irresponsible doesn't mean the child should doubly suffer (once from being born out-of-wedlock, and again by being deprived of a relationship with the father.)

What's needed here is nothing more than some fundamental fairness, sharing of responsibility, and respect for well-established principles of law and justice.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at January 20, 2004 10:27 AM

I see my father often as my parents were married, but when it comes it comes to extra-marital affairs or affairs in general, control is crucial. If a woman is unmarried, then there is a question of financial support but if she is married or in a steady relationship, I don't see why the father of her child should be forced to fork over child support.

Posted by: Teen Girl at January 20, 2004 6:22 PM

If a woman can get an abortion without the consent of the father, how can the "father" be billed to support a child born without HIS consent? I'm pro choice, don't get me wrong, but isn't it interesting that the man really has no choice?

Also, if a "father" is not indeed the father, the courts often impose support because 'it's in the best interest of the child' regardless of whether that man's own biological children suffer monetarily as a result (it sure doesn't seem to be in the best interest of HIS children...). God forbid we all were forced to behave in whatever manner most benefitted any perceived victim. "You must continue making payments on the Porche you never bought because it is in the driver's best interest!" Utter insanity.....

Posted by: Kevin Mather at January 20, 2004 6:29 PM


Posted by: Lena Lesbiana at January 20, 2004 10:51 PM

It seems to me that the non-father could sue the mother for fraud and obtain a separate civil judgment enjoining the mother from receiving any proceeds of the fraud and, further, a return of all assets improperly obtained as a result of the fraud. The clock on this type of action would not start ticking until the non-father discovered the fraud. Problem solved?

Posted by: Rick at January 21, 2004 10:01 AM

A fertile man who sleeps with a fertile woman has consented to be a father, with all of the responsibilities that implies. Period.

Posted by: Julia at January 21, 2004 11:53 AM

Yes, that's biology and the law as we know it. But women have access to highly effective birth control. A woman who does not want to get pregnant really need not, with RARE exceptions -- if she is responsible enough to take precautions. If you have diabetes, do you expect others to see that your blood sugar doesn't get dangerously high by penalizing anyone who offers you a donut? Women get pregnant. If they can't biologically and financially manage their one-night-stands, they have no business having them.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 21, 2004 12:56 PM

And men know that women can be irresponsible, stupid, or just evil--all of which applies to anyone, male or female, who knowingly takes a chance on creating a helpless child whom they cannot support.

Posted by: Julia at January 21, 2004 7:17 PM

I know that unintentional pregnancy and childbearing are serious matters, but this discussion thread is getting a naively moralistic tone. Remember, you're also talking about sex, not just procreation. People aren't exactly rational little utility-maximizers when they're fixing to shoot their wad.

Posted by: Lena's love is a battlefield (and so is her hair) at January 21, 2004 8:55 PM