Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Bert Riddick plans to go to a California court this year to try, once again, to escape a child-support order for a girl he has never met and says he has proof he didn’t father.

This time, the law likely will back him up.

Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill to allow men to challenge the paternity of children for whom they owe support.

“I don’t feel there’s any way for the system to fight it anymore,” said Mr. Riddick of Carson, Calif., who has been protesting his child-support order for more than a decade.

The new law, sponsored by California Assembly member Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat, was cheered by opponents of “paternity fraud.”

“It’s well overdue,” said Carnell Smith, founder of U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud in Decatur, Ga., who counts California as the 24th state with a “paternity fraud” law.

The California law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will help thousands of men who have been assigned child support orders “by default,” said Mr. Smith, referring to the common practice in which assumed fathers are ordered to pay child-support even if they never appear in court.

The law also will protect men who signed “confessions of paternity” when they thought they were fathers but later discovered they were not, said Mr. Smith, who successfully lobbied for a “paternity fraud” law in Georgia after discovering he was paying for a child he did not father.

Like many other states, California’s new law sets time limits on paternity challenges. Men can file protests within two years of being ordered to pay child support or within two years of the child’s birth.

Men such as Mr. Riddick, who have known for years they are supporting someone else’s child, also will be allowed to challenge their child-support orders under the law.

The California law passed the Legislature with virtually unanimous support because it was a compromise bill, advocates said.

A stronger “paternity fraud” bill had been offered in the state Senate, said Los Angeles lawyer Marc Angelucci, who is a leader of the National Coalition of Free Men. The Senate bill, however, was opposed by California child- support officials and feminist groups who viewed it as a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said.

Feminist and child-support groups have become increasingly alarmed by growing support for what they call paternity “disestablishment.” They argue that biology is not always paramount in family relationships, and ending established support for a child is rarely in the child’s best interest.

Financial considerations also play a part in ending established child-support orders.

In 2002, California Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a “paternity fraud” bill that would have required men to be “personally” served with child-support papers. Such a rule would prevent many men from being named fathers and end up costing California as much as $40 million in federal child-support funds, Mr. Davis said in his veto statement.

Mr. Riddick said he was assigned a child support payment by default after a woman he knew named him the father of her child. The 1994 payment grew over time to $1,400 per month for the past four years.

Mr. Riddick said he found out he wasn’t the father in 1996 after he was arrested as “a deadbeat dad.” The criminal-court judge ordered DNA testing for Mr. Riddick, the mother and the child. “It showed I had a 0 percent chance of being the father of this child,” he said.

The criminal-court judge threw out the charge, but when Mr. Riddick tried to get his child- support order overturned in civil court, state officials refused.

“They said the criminal court case had nothing to do with the civil case and I would still have to pay child support for 18 years,” Mr. Riddick said. “And I’ve never even seen this kid.”

The consequences have been severe.

“Lost my home, ruined my marriage,” he said, adding that the “real victims” are his biological children, whom he has been hard-pressed to support.

When Mr. Riddick goes to court in December to get a January court date, things should be different.

“Now we finally have a law to cite rather than an argument to cite,” he said.

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