Canadian Children's Rights Council
Conseil canadien des droits des enfants

Opposing view: Clearing up the paternity process

By Roderick D. Wright -- Special To The Bee
Opinion, The Sacramento Bee, July 12, 2002

While I agree with the editorial's title, "What is fatherhood? / It's more than biology - much more " fatherhood also should be more than a wage garnishment from a man to support another man's child.

Take the case of Steven. He, his wife, Nancy, and two children lived in a modest home in Thousand Oaks. He was a manager for a biotech firm and his wife did volunteer work. Imagine the shock when he received a notice from Los Angeles County declaring him the father of a child and informing him that he was seven years and more than $80,000 in arrears on child support.

The support notice was also mailed to his employer. more than half his salary was attached, a lien was placed on his home, his bank accounts levied, his driver's license suspended and a negative mark placed on his credit report.

Steven's former girlfriend Donna had named him the father of her child.

The paternity hearing notice was mailed to his previous address (the only address she knew). Personal service (being handed a subpoena in person) is not required in paternity cases. It took Los Angeles County seven years to find him. Because he did not answer the default judgment within the six months allowed (since he had no idea it existed), he has no legal recourse to challenge it. He discovered his rights after paying more than $10,000 in attorney fees. He knew by the age of the child that he was not the father and a DNA test would have confirmed it, but he was too late under the law to do anything about it.

He lost his job and home, and separated from his family so they could qualify for welfare. Donna acknowledged that Steven might not be the father and sought a DNA test for closure. However, the district attorney successfully blocked the change in paternity to protect the state's financial interest because Donna had been collecting welfare.

The tally: One broken home, three children on welfare, two adult lives destroyed. Such is the status of California family law.

AB 2240 would give judges discretion to review such cases and determine the appropriate remedy.

The Bee is naive to think a man who is having his check garnished for a child who is not his own would develop an emotional bond with the child. Most likely, he has never met the child. It is not really an issue of fatherhood, but of money. In most cases, this is money that reimburses the state since the vast majority of these men do not earn enough to cover the welfare, food stamps and Medi-Cal paid by government assistance.

Challenging paternity in California costs a minimum of $2,000.

Additionally, if the man thought the child were his, what would be the point of fighting? To establish false paternity, either fraud or a mistake had to have happened. While the court can garnish wages, it cannot prevent the truth from coming to light. Once the truth is known, allow the mother, the accused father and the child to decide what, if any, relationship they may wish to maintain.

Why should the actual father escape his responsibility? Several states have adopted variations of DNA challenges to their family law codes. They all have higher child support collection rates than California and spend far less in court proceedings.

A man who knows a child is his more likely would maintain a relationship with the child and pay support than a man who is not sure. In Los Angeles County, 78 percent of paternity cases are settled by default judgments at which the man was not present. Nationally, in more than 30 percent of contested paternity cases a DNA test has proven the accused man is not the father.

AB 2240 would not make it easier for parents to become deadbeat. Quite the opposite. To challenge paternity, the man would have to appear in court and more than likely retain counsel. Should he be determined to be the father, the state would have current information about him with which to set a fair support order. My bill would facilitate that.

AB 2240 would curtail "deeppocket paternity," "revenge paternity," "convenience paternity" and honest mistakes where the mother may truly not have known who the father was. DNA offers a true solution. We use it in criminal cases to establish guilt. Why can't the family code join the 21st century?

Current law is neither fair nor moral. It ruined the life of Steven. It did nothing to protect the innocent child who was not his, and it forced Steven's children into poverty and welfare. In contrast, AB 2240 would protect fathers, families and children.

In time we will DNA-match all children not only to establish paternity, but also because many new medications will be DNA-based. Until then, we must have AB 2240.

About the Writer

Roderick D. Wright wrote this in response to The Bee's editorial "What is fatherhood? / It's more than biology -- much more &qquot; which appeared in The Bee June 21. He is a Democrat who represents Los Angeles in the state Assembly. E-mail, email-click here Phone, (916) 319-2048.