Preventing Paternity Fraud

By Luke Smith

The Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department (CSSD) boasts an impressive record. According to its website, in 2002 alone CSSD “established paternity for more than 65,000 children, and distributed over $428 million dollars for families.” But taking into account the L.A. bureaucracy’s ruthless crusade to find “deadbeat dads,” as well as the widespread problem of paternity fraud, the numbers become a lot less impressive.

The Los Angeles Times reveals that in 79 percent of L.A. child support cases, paternity is established by default judgments in municipal court, meaning that paternity is simply presumed but not proven. Men are declared “default” fathers when they fail to contest paternity allegations within a month, but many men report that they never learned of the allegations in time.

According to U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, as many as 30 percent of “fathers” paying child support nationwide may not be the actual fathers. Often, child-support agencies bamboozle them into signing paternity declarations, or the mother fraudulently names a father to qualify for welfare assistance. In some cases, judges are prohibited from overturning default rulings despite clear DNA evidence. The problem is so out of hand that in 1998 the California Court of Appeals had to rebuke overzealous L.A. officials for having “lost sight of the paramount duty to seek justice” in child-support cases.

The problem is not confined to California. Federal initiatives begun in the late 1990s require states to search vast databases of tax records for “deadbeat dads,” but do not specify rigid standards of accuracy in paternity identification. As former President Clinton trumpeted Arkansas’ system of child support enforcement in a 1994 town hall meeting, “We started immediately beginning to process child support and creating a presumption of paternity that could be only overcome with proof.”

This kind of aggressive child support enforcement can have devastating personal consequences. State authorities begin taking “Dad’s” wages and ruining his credit, by reporting owed arrears to credit agencies—measures that ensure the financial security of single mothers, at the expense of justice for the men erroneously declared fathers. Instead, states should establish paternity with hard and fast DNA evidence, before notifying employers and credit agencies. Judges should never be left to decide a paternity case without such easily obtainable evidence.

Efforts to enshrine in law the ability of judges to refer to DNA tests, however, have encountered ferocious opposition. In Sept. 2002, for instance, California Governor Gray Davis vetoed the Paternity Justice Act under pressure from the National Organization for Women and children’s advocacy groups. The legislation would have freed thousands of paternity fraud victims from unwarranted child-support obligations by allowing judges to overturn default paternity judgments when confronted with DNA evidence disproving paternity.

Defending opposition to the Paternity Justice Act, an official from the Children’s Advocacy Institute in San Diego said, “We’re glad that the governor put children first.” Advocates of “children first,” however, could instead focus their efforts on the federal guidelines for welfare assistance, which require states to identify fathers before giving assistance to single mothers. Paternity justice need not be a zero-sum fight between single mothers and men wrongly declared fathers.

Trying to explain feminist opposition to paternity justice laws, Victor Smith, president of Dads Against Discrimination, observes that Americans “have a healthy disrespect for fathers. It’s socially ingrained in our society.” But Bernard Goldberg, a CBS journalist who covered the paternity fraud crisis in 1998, proposes a more sinister hypothesis: Americans have developed hostility toward men.

As far-fetched as this sounds, the fact that paternity justice has devolved into a bitterly divisive gender issue supports Goldberg’s claim. Rather than take the time and procure the evidence necessary to nail the guilty man, the state often just nails any man who is a tenuous match. Clearly, it’s not just “a healthy disrespect for fathers” that is becoming ingrained in our society. It’s also a very unhealthy disrespect for men.

Feminists sometimes allow this disrespect for men to spill over into their rhetoric. Activist Helen Caldicott argues that men are psychopaths (in her more diplomatic phrasing of it, “societies dominated by male values” condone “violence and killing” and “psychotic behavior”), and she also points out that men are “clinically and psychologically dead.” Columnist Anna Quindlen sums up her philosophy on gender issues: “It’s simply that I think women are superior to men.”

Some might claim these women are joking. (Dr. Caldicott certainly isn’t joking; as she clarifies, “I am deadly serious”). But is their man-hating humor really that funny? After all, who cares that the clinically and psychologically dead psychopaths are forced to support other people’s children? Men are guilty and should pay, simply because they are men. As California attorney Fatima Araiza says, “This is no longer the oppression of women. This is now the oppression of men.”

Opponents of paternity justice, even if they don’t like men that much, should keep in mind that it’s not really a gender issue at stake. Paternity fraud devastates not only the men erroneously declared fathers, but also their families. This includes the children who really are theirs, whom they must also support, sometimes on meager incomes. Laws exonerating paternity fraud victims and rescuing their families from undue financial hardship deserve support, not the blind opposition and gendered hostility they have encountered so far.

Luke Smith ‘04, a Crimson editor, is an economics concentrator in Quincy House.