Orange Country Register

Nondads bearing DNA proof left to pay by Davis veto

Victims of paternity fraud had hoped bill would end support obligations.

By JENIFER B. McKIM
October 13, 2002
The Orange County Register

Every payday, Lance Poirier is struck by what he considers an injustice that has nearly ruined him.

That's because the county takes hundreds of dollars in child support from Poirier's check each month for a 12-year-old boy who isn't his and whom he has barely seen.

A DNA test proved that Poirier is not the dad, which the mother doesn't dispute now. But officials with the Orange County Department of Child Support Services say the law prohibits them from throwing out the 7-year-old paternity order. They say they gave Poirier chances early on to resolve the issue, but it's too late now.

"I have never had any contact with this kid. To me, it is crazy how they could say I'm the father,'' said Poirier, 43, a construction worker from Buena Park who says the legal and support expenses have cost him a job, his house, a car and a boat. "I am just the scapegoat who pays.''

Poirier and an increasingly vocal group of men say they're being victimized by a state law that requires them to support children who aren't theirs. Many either didn't question the mother when they were identified as the father, were ignorant about the legal process, or ducked the issue when paternity was established. Now, even with DNA evidence to the contrary, they are required to pay for other men's children until the minors turn 18. State law says that if a man doesn't contest a paternity judgment within a limited time, it's too late.

In Poirier's case, the law ties together mother, son and man in a legal bind that none of them wants. Poirier is nearly $22,000 behind in his child-support payments. The mother says she is unable to fight for support from the biological father.

Many agree that the law needs to be changed, but they differ on the details.

Last month, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill to allow Poirier and others to be released from their child-support obligations if they had DNA proof and a judge's OK. Davis said the bill was flawed and needed to be reworked.

Opponents of the bill - including The Association for Children for Enforcement of Support - say the bill did not adequately protect the rights of children who have long-term relationships with men presumed to be their fathers. They say the bill would have made it more difficult for county workers to establish paternity and could have left children without support if the biological father disappeared.

Others say the issue is clear.

"It is either his child or it isn't,'' said Assemblyman Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, author of the vetoed bill. "If it is not his child, and he is paying child support that is being garnished (from his wages), that is unfair.''

Similar battles are being waged in statehouses nationwide. It's unclear how many men are in the same situation. County officials say there are probably as few as 20 in Orange County. Fathers'-rights groups say there could be thousands statewide.

Darin Perry Reeves of Rancho Santa Margarita is a member of the newly formed California Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, which is working to ensure that Wright's bill is not forgotten.

"When this much money comes out of my check for things I could do for my family, it kills me,'' said Reeves, who says he pays $800 a month in child support for a son who isn't his. "DNA will let people off of death row, but it won't get you off this."

Reeves' complaint is more complicated than Poirier's - he did have a relationship with Tyler, the boy he supports. The boy's mother still wants Reeves involved.

Reeves wasn't in court in 1995 when he was named the father in a default judgment. This outcome isn't unusual - 64 percent of child-support orders are determined with the purported father absent, the county said.

Reeves said he wasn't aware of the hearing and fought the court order. He said the mother, Tanya Sue Hecker, told him that he wasn't the father. He wanted a DNA test but a judge denied it.

A year later, Tyler was removed from his mother by county child-protective services. Reeves took the 5-year-old in even though he still wasn't sure Tyler was his.

For nearly two years, Reeves helped Tyler in school. He coached him in soccer. Tyler called him Dad. But Hecker's constant visits strained his marriage, Reeves said.

He took a DNA test and learned that Tyler was not his. Weeks later, he dropped the boy off at Hecker's house.

Reeves said he planned to stay in Tyler's life but pulled back out of fear that further bonding would hurt his case to stop paying support.

He appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana but lost.

"The bottom line is he is not my kid; I thought it would end right there.''

Hecker acknowledges that Reeves is not the biological father, but says Tyler suffers from abandonment.

"He's not a dog you can take to the dog pound and leave him there,'' said Hecker. "My son has mental problems because of this.''

Such concerns lead some in the field to conclude that resolution of these conflicts is not always clear, and fatherhood is more than biology.

"He voluntarily held himself out as the father,'' said Kevin Harrison, deputy director of the county Department of Child Support Services.

The Poirier and Reeves cases transpired during the early 1990s, when the priority of the district attorney's child-support division was getting as much of the court-ordered support as possible from the noncustodial parents, with little regard for the fathers, Harrison said.

Now the division is working to give the putative fathers better information and to be more flexible during the legal process. The court has a facilitator to advise noncustodial parents of their rights.

"Fairness was not a high concern,'' is how the office operated as recently as 1995, Harrison said. "Their plight is not missed. We have to come up with a public policy that balances everybody's interest.''

Poirier concedes that he didn't protect his interests well 10 years ago.

He failed to show up for county-scheduled DNA tests after being named the possible father. He didn't appear at the hearing at which he was named the father.

Still, Poirier doesn't believe he should pay for his mistake for nearly two decades. He says he lost his job when the county revoked his license for failing to pay support. He then lost his home, his boat and his car.

"I know that I didn't do right, but I rectified that, and they are using me as a slave,'' said Poirier.

Harrison said the state allows men only a limited time to contest paternity - between six months and two years - to protect children's interests. Poirier had a six-month window to contest his case but didn't know it.

"We followed the law and put him on notice, and he chose not to do something,'' said Harrison. "Who should bear the consequence, the child or him? At some point it is too late.''

Michelle Luther, the boy's mother, says the county isn't doing her any favors. Poirier called a year ago in a rage, threatening to exercise his parental rights and take her son home on weekends, she said. The next day, Luther asked the county to stop charging Poirier.

"I've said this is not my child's father. That office will not listen because they found a man with a good-paying job,'' said Luther, 41. "He did screw up. But should he have to pay my debts?"

Luther said the real father - whose name her son carries - was an abusive boyfriend she hasn't seen for more than a year. She and Poirier had a one-night affair, so she felt she had to name him as a possible father. She named her boyfriend as the likely father, but he did not respond to the DA's letter, she said.

Poirier is no longer paying support, but he is still responsible for almost $22,000 in arrears. Just between June 6 and July 25, Poirier had $2,253 deducted for support, records show.

"They stick two human beings together that don't belong together," Luther said. "He is a nice guy who is taking the fall, and the other guy is getting off scot-free.''

Davis, in his veto message, directed the Department of Child Support Services to work with the Legislature and advocates on both sides of the issue to find solutions to paternity fraud.

"I don't think children have to go without child support once (fraud) is determined,'' said Dianna Thompson, executive director of the Lake Forest-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "The mothers should do what they should have done in the first place and disclose who the potential father could be.''


Contact McKim at 796-2295 or jmckim@ocregister.com