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DNA Shakes Up Child Support Law

Rights: System is challenged by men forced to pay for children who are not theirs.

April 15, 2002|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Advances in DNA testing have liberated convicts from death row and helped clear up scores of unsolved mysteries, but they have been slower to release men from obligations to pay child support in cases where the tests show they are not the biological father.

Instead of resolving some of those cases, DNA has plunged the area of child support and paternal obligation into complicated new debate over the law and issues as profound as what it means to be a father.

Bert Riddick's three children cram into one room in his brother-in-law's house in Carson because Riddick is required by a court order to pay child support for a girl he has never met and who is not his own. The result is that Riddick cannot afford to provide for his biological children.

A similar order sent Dennis Caron to an Ohio jail for 30 days because he refused to pay child support for a boy who DNA tests showed was not his own.

And in the case of Carnell Smith of Decatur, Ga., a $120,000 child-support bill for an ex-girlfriend's offspring who did not belong to him caused Smith to double-check the paternity of his wife's new baby with another DNA test.

"Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent mine," Smith said proudly.

The three men share more than a legal dilemma. They belong to a loose-knit movement of fathers who are gradually reshaping child-support laws in state after state so that men who can prove they did not father children can avoid paying for them.

In doing so, they have raised new issues about the legal system's role in defining the rights and responsibilities of those men who are deemed fathers by the courts, only to have those rulings later challenged by new scientific evidence.

Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles), author of a paternity reform bill slated to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, said payments sometimes take a hefty chunk of a man's earnings.

"It ain't his baby and we know it ain't his baby and here we're hitting him for 60% of his salary," Wright said. "In any other area of law, if that happened, that would be fraud. We'd be going out and screaming bloody murder."

But while Wright highlights the injustice of forcing men to pay support for children who are not their own, some child-support advocates see a different danger. They say Wright's bill and similar ones in a dozen other states can harm children by letting men who have acted as fathers for years escape their obligations.

"It's one of those things where the science has given us the ability to do something we maybe shouldn't do," said Paula Roberts of the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

"What you're saying is that all a man is, in terms of a father to a child, is a sperm donor. . . . We think that's really bad social policy."

The dilemma is created by legal tradition that holds that once a court has ruled that a man is the father of the child, the judgment must stand. If the man does not protest quickly enough, his only recourse is to pay support until the child turns 18.

The number of men affected could be large, especially because child-support orders are often entered without the man appearing in court.

Wright cites statistics from a 1999 study by the American Assn. of Blood Banks. That study found that of 280,000 blood tests performed to determine the paternity of children, 30% excluded the subject tested as being the father.

In some cases, courts can order children to submit blood or tissue samples for DNA testing, but rules regarding when and how those tests may be used vary from state to state.

"This is a clash between jurisprudence concepts rooted in English common law of a judgment being inviolate, versus 21st century science that has shown, well, sometimes we were wrong," said Steven Eldred, a deputy district attorney in Fresno County's child-support office. "This is a hot issue. Every state is going to have to deal with this."

Several already have. Eight states have passed laws allowing men armed with DNA evidence to challenge paternity judgments. Legislation is making its way through at least four others, including California. Ohio's law passed its Legislature two years ago with only one dissenting vote.

"People just said, 'Hey, gee, this is common sense,' " said Caron, a 45-year-old corporate recruiter who lives outside of Columbus and lobbied for the bill. "Why should some guy get the shaft like this when he isn't the father?"

After a protracted divorce and custody battle, Caron in 1997 found through DNA testing that he was not the child's father. After testifying before the Ohio Legislature about the need for paternity reform, Caron was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing to pay child support. He was released when his ex-wife's new husband adopted the child.

Congressmen Referred Constituents for Help

The experience made him a child-support celebrity, and calls began coming in from desperate men. Caron says some congressmen have referred constituents to him for help. Caron's experience in Ohio gave Carnell Smith hope.

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