There is a lot of unfairness in the world. The American justice system stands ready to counter that, right?
Not so fast.
When it comes to men and allegations of paternity, women have a decidedly upper hand. Whatever the woman claims in court most often becomes fact. And once a court has ruled on paternity and established child support, it can be next to impossible to change — even if a DNA test excludes the man from any possibility of parenthood.
Across the country, men of all ages, colors and social statuses have been ordered by family courts to pay child support for children that aren’t theirs.
In one infamous case in New Mexico, a man shelled out years of support for a daughter who never actually existed. His deceitful ex-wife simply told the court there was such a child, and no proof was ever requested.
Some victims of paternity fraud find out the truth while they are still married. In Michigan, Murray Davis discovered that two of his three children were actually fathered by his best friend. But by that time, the kids were nearly teenagers, well past the legal deadline for Davis to contest paternity in that state.
Carnell Smith, of Atlanta, Georgia, discovered that the daughter he’d been raising with his girlfriend wasn’t his. But the courts didn’t want to hear it. Smith was stuck. Like Davis, this falsely identified “father” began to lobby for changes in his state’s law.
Smith started a group called U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud and got Georgia to join Ohio in being one of only two states that allow an unlimited time for a man to challenge paternity as long as the child support case is open.
Many states require a man to file a challenge before the child’s third birthday. The federal law gives a man just 60 days.
“That’s pretzel logic, isn’t it?” Smith asked me. “Don’t tell a man the truth, and then penalize him for not correcting the record fast enough. Some men don’t realize what’s happened,” Smith said, “until they are under water with child support payments and then have no money to pay an attorney to fight for them.”
Also working against the wronged man is the Bradley Amendment, a federal law that prohibits state judges from retroactively modifying child support orders.
None of it sounds fair, does it? But it happens all the time. Judicial reasoning ranges from, “it’s in the best interest of the child,” to, “he didn’t challenge the paternity claim immediately.”
Carnell Alexander of Detroit has been under a court-ordered cloud for nearly 30 years.
In 1987, his ex-girlfriend applied for welfare to support her new baby. She put Alexander’s name down as the father even though he wasn’t. A process server swore he served Alexander with papers demanding he appear in court, so when Alexander didn’t show up, he was declared a “deadbeat dad.”
Truth is, Alexander was never notified. He was in prison at the time on an unrelated charge stemming from a youthful crime. He didn’t find out about his problem until a traffic stop in 1991.
The mother in question now admits, “Everything is my fault.” She told a Detroit TV station, “He shouldn’t have to pay it at all. I want everything to go away for him so he can get on with his life.”
Despite the mother’s lies to the state, despite a definitive DNA test excluding Alexander as the father, he still owes $30,000 in support for, as he puts it, “A child that I did not father … that I was not involved in raising.” He adds, “It is not fair.”
There’s that phrase again. It is not fair.
Murray Davis, who established the National Family Justice Association after his painful experience, says Alexander, “Is only one among tens of thousands in this state and possibly hundreds of thousands or millions around the nation who are victims of this abhorrent crime of paternity fraud.”
Fair seems rare in these cases, but a creative-thinking judge in Virginia found a way around that pesky Bradley Amendment. He ruled that a defrauded man who still legally owed $23,000 in back child support could pay it off at a rate of one dollar a year — for 1, 917 years! You gotta love that.
This kind of fraud happens to young men going off to college, to soldiers going overseas, to men of all ages and occupations. And it ruins lives. Biological children of the falsely identified, new wives, grandparents and others are all profoundly affected by paternity fraud.
Having the best interest of a child in mind is knowing the child’s lineage and medical history. The best interest of society is to have a respected family court that is fair to all.
DNA tests cost about $30 these days. It’s time for automatic court-ordered DNA testing in all child-support cases.