When Walter Sharpe received the certified letter on Feb. 6, 2001, he knew the complaint for child support was a mistake.
Andre Sharpe had a different date of birth, a different Social Security number and different previous addresses.
Andre Sharpe also had an 11-year-old daughter with a woman in Harrisburg, and Walter Sharpe knew he had been to Harrisburg only once, to register a car. He also knew he hadn't fathered a child to a woman named Terri Jones on that trip.
So he ignored it.
A court entered a default judgment against Sharpe, and for the next six years, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania hounded the former trash collector to collect child support for the girl. He lost his job, paid more than $12,000 in support and fines, became estranged from his family (he has four kids of his own), and was jailed four times for failing to make payments. The county denied his repeated requests for a DNA paternity test (and were backed up by the courts), arguing that its domestic relations officials had sufficiently confirmed paternity "after reasonable investigation."
Walter Sharpe's attorney alleges that when he appeared in person with personal information proving he couldn't be the father, county officials merely changed the biographical information on the custody forms to match Walter Sharpe's.
After looking into Sharpe's story, the Patriot-News newspaper was able to determine the child's real father, Andrew Sharpe, in less than an hour. That's because the girl has been living with him for the last four years. The girl's grandmother (who had custody for a time) says the real father has supported the girl the entire time. The article isn't clear on where Walter Sharpe's support payments have gone.
In May 2007, a judge finally ruled that Walter Sharpe isn't the girl's father. But last October the same judge refused to reimburse Walter Sharpe for any of his past payments, much less all the damage done to him by the mistake. The county's arguments are incredible:
In court papers, the office stated it repeatedly advised Walter Sharpe to file a "petition to disestablish paternity" and he failed to do so for three years, so he is at fault.
It still claims he can't prove he is not the father because there are no DNA tests to show that, despite the fact the agency repeatedly opposed his requests for DNA testing.
"Furthermore, [the Department of Public Welfare] has experienced grave injustice as a result of [Walter Sharpe's] failure to address this matter in a timely fashion," a joint answer filed by Domestic Relations and the state Department of Public Welfare states.
The agency claims that because of Walter Sharpe's delay in challenging paternity, it is unable to recoup support payments from the real father.
"As a result of [Walter Sharpe's] delayed actions in this matter, DPW is forced to suffer unfair and irreversible injury."
I don't know if the office is correct about Sharpe failing to file a petition to disestablish paternity, but the court papers do seem to show the office really has no idea what's going on with the girl, given that she has been getting support her biological father all along, including him actually raising her for a good portion of her life. Meanwhile, Sharpe's own kids not only weren't getting the money Sharpe was spending on wrongful payments and legal fees, the mess made it fairly difficult for him to be an actual father for them, too.
Matt Welch wrote about this problem back in our February 2004 issue. Welfare reform laws require mothers to name a father in order to get benefits. State bureaucracies then hound whomever the woman names for child support. The problem is that there's little incentive for the agencies to get paternity right. Miss that first chance to challenge—even through no fault of your own—and prepare for years of hell trying to get your life back in order.
Related: A Canadian court ruled last week that a Toronto man must keep making child support payments to his ex-wife despite her admitting that her 16-year-old twins aren't his.