Saturday, January 15, 2005

A lawyer says she has helped seven California men escape erroneous child support orders, though another man, who has been fighting his order for almost a decade, is waiting for his day in court this month.

California “paternity fraud” victims are finding relief under a landmark 2004 court decision and a law that went into effect Jan. 1. Both offer opportunities for courts to overturn established child support obligations for men who can prove they are not the fathers.

In just the past few weeks, “I have overturned seven [men’s cases]. … They’re off the hook,” Santa Ana, Calif., lawyer Linda S. Ferrer told The Washington Times last week.

All seven men had been assigned child support orders by default, which means they weren’t in court to defend themselves, she said. Two of the men had been close enough to the mothers to have once had a relationship with the children, but the other five “had never met the mother,” Miss Ferrer said.

News has spread, and she said she has heard from fathers from “all over the state” asking for help.

Meanwhile, Taron G. James of Torrance, Calif., founder of Veterans Fighting Paternity Fraud, is eagerly awaiting his Jan. 25 court date.

“I am trying to get my name cleared as the father of this child that isn’t mine and I don’t even know,” said Mr. James, a Navy veteran from the Gulf war.

Mr. James admits he had an affair with the mother, but it ended a year before her child was born in 1992. A DNA test obtained in 2001 excluded him as the child’s father.

In addition to relief from the child support order, Mr. James wants restitution for the estimated $12,000 taken from him in child support and $38,000 he has spent fighting the system since 1996. A separate suit, filed in civil court, seeks monetary damages from the mother and Los Angeles county officials, all of whom defrauded him, said his lawyer, Marc Angelucci.

Paternity fraud cases typically languished until two pivotal events last year.

The first was a June court decision in the case of Whittier, Calif., construction worker Manuel Navarro.

Mr. Navarro’s saga started in 1996, when a woman who lived in his neighborhood named “Manuel Nava” as the father of her twin boys. Child support officials assumed Mr. Navarro was the father and sent a summons to his sister’s home. When Mr. Navarro didn’t respond within 30 days, the court established a $247-a-month child support order for him by default.

This “default” practice is not uncommon in California. More than 70 percent of the state’s child support orders were established by default — a rate that is “dramatically higher” than in other states, Urban Institute researchers said in a 2003 study of California’s child support system.

In 2001, with DNA proof that he was not the father, Mr. Navarro, represented by Miss Ferrer, sued to have his child support order thrown out. A lower court refused, saying too much time had elapsed, but Mr. Navarro won on appeal.

The county “should not enforce child support judgments it knows to be unfounded,” the California Court of Appeal for the 2nd District said in its June 30 decision. “[W]hen a mistake occurs in a child support action, the county must correct it, not exploit it,” it added.

Child support officials quickly moved to get the Navarro decision “depublished” or rendered moot for use in court. But in November, the California Supreme Court denied their request, and the law stands.

The second pivotal event came in September when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a paternity fraud law called AB 252, which allows men to challenge established child support orders under limited circumstances. It went into effect Jan. 1.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Child Support Services told The Washington Times that it has been updating its officials on AB 252. Child support workers, she added, are using better tools to locate fathers, which means fewer default orders are issued.

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