As Inky readers know, I disapprove of divorced fathers who quit supporting their children–and sometimes even deny paternity–just because the mother has moved away with the kids or otherwise treated their dad unfairly. Wronged though these fathers may be, they shouldn’t take it out on their own children.

But my censure doesn’t extend to men who never married the children’s mother and never knew they were fathers–and indeed deny having been so–until they received an official summons from a county requiring them either to prove they’re not the father or pay child support.

This sort of paternity suit–a by-product of requirements that mothers who want to receive welfare  to name some guy as the father of their children–has become a national scandal, affecting an estimated 10 million men. The child-support money doesn’t even go to the woman and her children, but to the county government as a sort of reimbursement for the welfare checks (minus, of course, the cost of paying all the bureaucrats who enforce the system). Furthermore, most states don’t even require that the man be personally served with a summons for the paternity suit, which means the county can just mail it to an address where the presumed dad might have lived. This virtually ensures that a lot of men, especially low-income men, will never receive the summons. And if they don’t, and the time period–usually 30 days–passes for them to contest the paternity summons in court, well, tough luck. The county can obtain a “default” (no-show) judgment declaring them to be the father, and they’re on the hook for wage-garnishments, even if a blood or  DNA test proves conclusively that they never could have been the dad.

Fortunately, as Wendy McElroy of iFemnists points out, a California state appeals court has finally put an end to the most egregious aspects of this mess, at least in Los Angeles County and at least as far as Manuel Navarro, who’d been fighting false paternity charges since 1996, was concerned. The facts in Navarro’s case are appalling. In March 1996 a woman living in Los Angeles County and seeking welfare named one “Manuel Nava” (note: not “Navarro” but “Nava”) as the father of her two boys born in 1995.

The County’s support-enforcement office filed a paternity suit against Navarro, and served him the summons by dropping off a copy at his home with a woman thought to be his sister (whose name the process server never found out, so she was listed as “Jane Doe”) and also by mailing him a copy. Navarro said that he’d never received a copy of the summons, and in any event he’d already taken a blood test that proved he wasn’t the boys’ father when the mother had applied for welfare in nearby San Bernardino County, and the county had agreed, dropping its own paternity suit. Navarro didn’t respond to the Los Angeles suit. Los Angeles County obtained a default judgment against him and ordered him to pay $247 a month in child support. Five years later, Navarro tried to get the default judgment set aside on the ground that the boys’ mother had committed “extrinsic fraud” by naming him as father of the boys in Los Angeles when she knew perfectly well from the events in San Bernardino that he wasn’t.

Alas (as far as I’m concerned), the state Court of Appeal decided that merely naming someone falsely as father of your children doesn’t constitute extrinsic fraud. But the court had harsh words for the Los Angeles County support office for demanding enforcement of a paternity judgment that it knew perfectly well from the events in San Berardino wasn’t supported by the evidence. The appellate court noted that California’s child-support enforcement law specifically requires counties to correct injustices to men wrongly named as fathers in paternity suits:

“It should not enforce child support judgments it knows to be unfounded. And in particular, it should not…ask the courts to assist it in doing so. Despite the Legislature’s clear directive that child support agencies not pursue mistaken child support actions, the County persists in asking that we do so. We will not sully our hands by participating in an unjust, and factually unfounded, result.”

Hooray! As Wendy puts it in her headline, “innocence is now a defense.”

Wendy links to an article, Injustice by Default, in the February 2004 issue of Reason magazine by Matt Welch telling the story of his friend Anthony Pierce, served in 2000 with a summons alleging that he was the father of an 8-year-old girl living in Contra Costa County near San Francisco. Pierce had never met the girl’s mother, had been attending college at UC-Santa Barbara and was involved in long-term monogamous relationship when the conception occurred, and didn’t fit the mother’s physical description of the supposed father (he was a short, light-skinned black, while the father was described as a tall, dark-skinned black). Pierce made the mistake of electing an option offered by the county of telling his side of the story to support officials and so missed the 30-day deadline to file a response in a court 400 miles away. Presto–he was declared the dad, and now, eight years and some $10,000 in legal fees later, he is still fighting to set aside the judgment and subsequent wage-garnishment order for $9,000 in back child support (the mother is under a court order to have the daughter given a DNA test, but she has yet to comply, says Welch.) Other sanctions that Pierce could accrue for defying the judgment include loss of his driver’s license and even denial of a passport. Welch writes:

“If the mother was unwed, says California DCSS Assistant Director Leora Gerhenzon, ‘you ask about when you became pregnant, why you believe that date is correct, whether or not the father was named on the birth certificate, has the father seen the child,…does the father provide for support, has he ever lived with the child,…a Social Security number….It’s a half-hour [interview], or even an hour and a half to two hours.’

“What if the only information the mother provides, I ask Gerhenzon, is that it was 10 years ago, with a white guy named Matt Welch, now between 30 and 40 years old, who maybe lives in the Los Angeles area?

“‘In that case, now it depends,’ she says. ‘We run our search on him; if we come back with one Matt Welch who lives in L.A., whose birthday fits that 10-year range, and we have nobody else, we presume in general we have the person. If we come back with three Matt Welches, all of a sudden we know there’s a problem. We have to call her back in, or call her on the phone, and say “OK, here’s what we’ve pulled up. We need more help from you to identify which is the correct [one].”‘

“So a name, race, vague location, and a broad age range is sufficient to launch a process that could quickly lead to a default judgment, asset liens, and a blocked passport? ‘Right. Right,’ Gerhenzon confirms. ‘If it’s clear that she’s given us enough identifying information to come up with one discrete name, we would go ahead.’ Wouldn’t that make people with unusual names easier targets? ‘Absolutely.'”

Pierce’s case is hardly unusual. As Welch points out; some 71 percent of the paternity judgments in California are by default judgment, meaning that the presumed father has never appeared in court to contest the charges. (State law requires the county merely to mail the summons to the man’s last known address and need not prove that he actually receive it.)  The California legislature tried to correct some of these injustices  in 2000 by exhonorating men whose DNA tests disproved paternity, but then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the changes, which were oppsed by the National Organization for Women and other radical feminists who apparently hate men so much collectively that they don’t care about justice to individual men. As one of the feministas, California state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times concerning a similar bill pending in the state legislature in 2002 (as Welch reports), “This bill says the donation of genetic material makes a father. I don’t agree.”

Now a state appellate court has stepped in to cure some of these wrongs. I certainly hope that the ruling in Manuel Navarro’s case sets a lasting precedent.