One of my first jaw-dropping experiences in the fathers’ rights arena came back in 1999. I was researching the phenomenon of men who had learned after the fact – and sometimes long after the fact – that they’d fathered a child. I was interested in what happened to their parental rights if a mother kept a man’s child secret from him. I was astonished to learn that the rights of such a dad could vanish into thin air. The rule in many states was that, since he hadn’t actively cared for the child, he had no more claim to it. The fact that the mother had intentionally deprived him of the ability to do that often made no difference to courts.
So I had lengthy conversations with a number of those dads, one of whom lived in Lompoc, California. He’d had a one-night stand with a woman 16 years previously. They both lived in the same community, but she decided he didn’t need to know about it when she became pregnant and gave birth to his daughter. Then she started receiving AFDC payments (now TANF) from the state which were required to be reimbursed by the father. Fifteen years later, the dad received a letter from the State of California saying (a) he had a daughter and (b) he owed the state over $40,000. This was shortly after he’d gotten married. He had to get a second mortgage on his house to pay off the state.
This case is very much the same, but in fact much worse (WXYZ, 7/8/10). This time it’s the State of Michigan that’s suing Gary Harper for AFDC payments made to a woman named Dorothy Hoose. She had a son in 1988 and named Harper as the dad. There’s just one problem, though; he’s not.
But the State of Michigan isn’t interested in technicalities like who the actual father is. It’s known for many years that Harper is not the dad and, as far as I can tell, lifted nary a finger to find out who is. That’s because it’s got Harper on its line and the hook is set. Why go after another fish when you’ve already got one reeled in?
You see, when Hoose named Harper as the dad, he was in prison. According to Michigan law, the state has to pay for a DNA test for any inmate for whom it seeks to establish paternity. The state knew Harper was in the joint because a Friend of the Court sent correspondence there about his case. But it never offered him the genetic testing.
After he got out, he didn’t have the $500 it would have taken at the time to determine whether he was the dad or not. He didn’t do the test until years later, when he had the money. That test proved he wasn’t the dad, but it was too late. His window of opportunity for disproving his paternity had closed. That’s one of those technicalities the state is interested in.
So as of now, Harper’s on the hook for $22,500, down from the $50,000 the state claimed at first. He’s got an attorney, Susan Pushman, who says that the state’s failure to provide DNA testing when Harper was inside means it can’t complain that he didn’t do it on his own when he got out. If Michigan had done what it was obligated to do, it would have known Harper isn’t the father, is her argument. The case is pending.
The “child” in question is now 22 years old. Perhaps oddly, he and Harper have gotten to know and like each other pretty well. That’s a positive development in an otherwise tawdry affair.
It’s worth asking why the State of Michigan has expended such effort in trying to bankrupt a man it knows has no responsibility for Hoose’s son. After all, Harper has been trying to get his life back together after his time in prison, and he’s done a pretty good job of that. But if the state has its way, it’ll tear down whatever he’s built. Nice.
What truly escapes me is why state welfare authorities don’t just ask Hoose who the father is, do DNA testing on him and, if she’s right this time, demand payment. What’s the problem with getting the right man and letting the wrong one go? What state interest is served by soaking a man who’s not the father and letting the man who is go free? One of the points of child support is that he who fathers a child should be financially responsible for it. In Harper’s case, the State of Michigan has it exactly backwards.
Thanks to Jeff for the heads-up.