Tony Pierce remembers vividly the exact moment in November 2000 when the state of California began trampling on his life. "There was a loud angry pounding at my door at five o'clock in the morning," he recalls. "Very scary."
It was a female police officer with a complaint accusing him of being the father of an 8-year-old girl in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco. "I'm like, 'Great! I'm definitely not the father of anybody,'" he says.
There were excellent reasons to think so. He had never met or heard of the mother of the child. He had never lived in Northern California, and at the time of conception (spring 1991) he was attending the University of California at Santa Barbara, beginning a monogamous relationship that would last for two years. What's more, he's a condom fanatic -- only once in his life, Pierce swears, has he failed to use a rubber during intercourse, and that was "many years after." (He's been a friend of mine for 15 years, and I believe him.) And if the summons had included the mother's testimony (it was supposed to, but did not), he would have seen himself described as a "tall" and "dark" black man named "Anthony Pierce." Pierce is a hair over five feet, nine inches; he is so light-skinned that even people who know him sometimes don't realize he's black; and no one calls him Anthony except his mom.
The front page of the court document gave simple but misleading instructions: "You have 30 days to respond to this lawsuit. You may respond in one of two ways: 1. File an Answer to the complaint with the Superior Court of Contra Costa County, not with the District Attorney....2. Settle the case with the District Attorney. You may call us at (925) 313-4200 to discuss your case." Concluding incorrectly (but understandably) that he could settle the matter over the phone, Pierce called -- three times that day -- and tried to weave his way through a labyrinthine phone tree. Finally he found a human being, who instructed him to leave a message with a home phone number. The department called him back the next day and left a message; it took another three calls from Pierce before he reached a caseworker for the first time.
"I said, 'What do I need to do? I'm not the father,'" he remembers. "And they were like, 'OK, well this is what you do: You just call in every day, and then we'll understand that you're not it, because if you're it, you're not gonna call us every day.'"
Pierce did everything he was told over the next three weeks of phone tag, except for comprehending that the 30-day deadline for denying paternity in writing was etched in federal law, regardless of what he discussed with Contra Costa employees -- who he says never once told him the clock was ticking. "All they were doing was delaying me from doing what I needed to do," he says. "It's a huge scam -- huge scam....They're just counting the days. They're like, 'Sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker.'...And this is the government!"
Two months later, after the phone conversations had ended and he assumed he was off the hook, Pierce received notice that a "default judgment" had been entered against him, and that he owed $9,000 in child support. He was between dot-com jobs, and his next unemployment check was 25 percent smaller; the state of California had seized and diverted $100 toward his first payment. Suddenly, he was facing several years of automatic wage garnishment, and the shame of being forced to explain to prospective employers why the government considered him a deadbeat dad. "That's when it hit me," he says. "I mean, it's mostly my fault -- 'Fill out the form, dumb-ass!'...But it's so rigged against you, it's ridiculous."
What Pierce didn't realize, and what nearly 10 million American men have discovered to their chagrin since the welfare reform legislation of 1996, is that when the government accuses you of fathering a child, no matter how flimsy the evidence, you are one month away from having your life wrecked. Federal law gives a man just 30 days to file a written challenge; if he doesn't, he is presumed guilty. And once that steamroller of justice starts rolling, dozens of statutory lubricants help make it extremely difficult, and prohibitively expensive, to stop -- even, in most cases, if there's conclusive DNA proof that the man is not the child's father.
This stacked deck against accused dads has provoked a backlash movement, triggering "paternity fraud" legislation and related legal challenges in more than a dozen states. Combined with advances in genetic technology, this conflict may end up changing the way we define parenthood. For now, the system aimed at catching "deadbeat dads" illustrates how a noble-sounding effort to help children and taxpayers can trample the rights of innocent people.
Here's how it works: When an accused "obligor" fails, for whatever reason, to send his response on time, the court automatically issues a "default judgment" declaring him the legal father. It does not matter if he was on vacation, was confused, or (as often happens) didn't even receive the summons, or if he simply treated the complaint's deadlines with the same lack of urgency people routinely exhibit toward jury duty summonses -- he's now the dad. "In California, you don't even have to have proof of service of the summons!" says Rod Wright, a recently retired Democratic state senator from Los Angeles who tried and failed to get several paternity-related reform bills, including a proof-of-service requirement, past former Gov. Gray Davis' veto. "They only are obligated to send it to the last known address."
In fact, a March 2003 Urban Institute study commissioned by the California Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) found that "most noncustodial parents appear to be served by 'substitute' service, rather than personal service, which suggests that noncustodial parents may not know that they have been served." In Los Angeles County, which is notorious for its sloppy summons service and zealous prosecution of alleged fathers it knows to be innocent, nearly 80 percent of paternity establishments come in the form of default judgments. In the state as a whole, which establishes 250,000 paternities a year while collecting $2 billion in child support, a whopping 68 percent of the 158,000 child support orders in 2000 (the last year studied) were default judgments.
Once paternity is "established," even if the government has never communicated with the father, the county court imposes a payment rate and schedule under the statistically mistaken assumption that he makes a full-time salary at minimum wage. (State audits have found that a full 80 percent of default dads don't make even that much.) To collect the money, the county may put a garnish order on the purported father's paycheck or place liens on his assets. If the mother has received welfare assistance after the child was born, the man will be hit with a bill to pay back the state, plus 10 percent annual interest. "That's what they're trying to do, is get some reimbursement to the state," says Carolyn Kelly, public relations officer for the Contra Costa County DCSS. "As you can imagine, [that's] millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars."
If the father falls 30 days behind on his payments, he will be blocked by law from receiving or renewing a driver's license or any "authorization issued by a board that allows a person to engage in a business, occupation, or profession" -- a category that includes teaching credentials, fishing licenses, and state bar memberships. If his credit rating was good, it won't be any more. If his past-due tab exceeds $5,000, the U.S. State Department won't issue him a passport. (An average of 60 Americans discover this each day. Meanwhile, Congress has been pushing to cut the limit to $2,500, while urging the State Department to begin revoking passports, which is allowed under the law.)
"When you tell people about the inequities of the system," Wright says, "they're surprised. They go, 'This is America! You couldn't do that!' And I go, 'Yes, you can.'"
Under the guidelines set forth by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, single mothers can receive welfare only on condition that the state take charge of collecting their child support, including unpaid amounts from the past. If the biological father is not paying support, he will be tracked down and hit with the bill. The admirable goal, which statistics show has partially been achieved, was to encourage more responsible sexual behavior by single women, give two-parent families an incentive to stay together, wean recipients off welfare by forcing them to work, and help them find a little extra cash they didn't have before. At the same time, however, the law gave states an explicit mandate and direct financial incentive to name the maximum number of fathers and extract from them the maximum amount of money.
The bottom-line results have been impressive: Since 1993, according to Senate testimony last March by Marilyn Ray Smith, director of the Child Support Enforcement Division of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, child support collection nationwide jumped from $8.9 billion in 1993 to $19 billion in 2001, while paternity establishments more than doubled, from 659,000 in 1994 to 1.6 million just five years later.
But you can read thousands of pages of laws, reports, and testimonies, and not see a single reference to the importance of naming the right guy, or to the gravity of making a mistake. Since Congress first got into the child support business in 1975, the cornerstone philosophy has been to orient everything toward "the best interest of the child," which in practice has meant ensuring that the kid receives money. Now that the states also have a financial incentive -- they pocket a cut of child support payments, earn performance rewards from the federal government, and enjoy the savings from reduced welfare rolls -- the cash motive is stronger than ever. California, for example, crunches the numbers every which way: total child support dollars collected per dollar of total expenditure, average amount collected per case, and so on. But nowhere does the state bother to count the number of citizens it has wrongfully named as fathers. The bias is overwhelming, and abuses are inevitable.