Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A child-support agency is asking the California Supreme Court to stop a ruling in which DNA tests voided a man’s obligation to pay child support from becoming a legal precedent.

Fathers’ rights groups cheered a state appeals court ruling for Manuel Navarro as a victory for “paternity fraud” victims, but their celebrations may be short-lived. The Los Angeles County child-support agency has asked for the appellate court ruling to be “depublished,” or omitted from official records, so no other man can use it to overturn his child-support order.

The child-support agency says the June 30 appellate ruling is “creating confusion” in trial courts and that is why it should be decertified.

Santa Ana lawyer Linda S. Ferrer, who represents Mr. Navarro, says the agency wants the ruling off the books because it stands to lose a lot of money if more men use it to get their child-support orders overturned.

“That’s the only thought — money,” said Ms. Ferrer, whose client had been ordered in 1996 to pay $247 a month in child support for two boys.

The Navarro case has broad implications because the California Court of Appeal for the 2nd District was so blunt in its ruling.

Mr. Navarro said he was never properly served child-support papers and was assigned child support in absentia. He recently underwent a DNA test that proved he was not the father of the boys.

When he went to court with his proof, however, the trial court ruled that Mr. Navarro still had to pay the child support because he did not protest it in time.

Mr. Navarro appealed and, on June 30, the appellate court handed him a victory, reversing the trial court decision and declaring that Los Angeles County “should not enforce child-support judgments it knows to be unfounded.”

“[W]hen a mistake occurs in a child-support action, the county must correct it, not exploit it,” the appellate judges added in their unanimous ruling.

Taron James, founder of Veterans Fighting Paternity Fraud in Torrance, Calif., says he, too, has a DNA test proving that he is not the father of a child he has paid $18,000 to support. He and his attorney, Marc Angelucci, plan to use the Navarro ruling in court next month to get his child-support order overturned.

But they may not be able to use the Navarro ruling. On Aug. 9, the Los Angeles County child-support agency sent a letter to the California Supreme Court asking it to depublish the Navarro ruling.

The Navarro “opinion is not based on law, the legislative declarations on which the opinion were based were misconstrued and misapplied to the facts, and the opinion will create confusion in the trial courts,” Lori Cruz, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department, said in the letter to California Supreme Court Justice Ronald M. George.

The California Legislature, she added, already is addressing the broader issues of DNA paternity testing and its impact on child-support orders. In the meantime, the Navarro ruling should be “decertified for publication” as it is “creating confusion and misapplication in the trial courts,” Ms. Cruz wrote.

Ms. Ferrer, Mr. Navarro’s attorney, said she is writing a letter opposing the decertification of the ruling.

There are potentially thousands of men who, like Mr. Navarro, were issued child-support orders in absentia, under a “default” policy, she said. If more men get their child-support orders overturned, “it’s going to unravel” the agency, she said.

No official for the Los Angeles child-support agency was available to discuss the Navarro case.

Child-support orders, once established, are not easily overturned. Advances in DNA testing, however, have exposed cases in which mothers — intentionally or accidentally — have named the wrong men as the fathers of their children for purposes of child support.

Yet many child-support officials are not sympathetic to the men, contending that losing a putative father’s support is likely to be detrimental to the children. “At what point should the truth about genetic parentage outweigh the consequences of leaving a child fatherless?” Paula Roberts of the Center for Law and Social Policy asked in a 2003 paper.

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