May 8, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Here’s the law on child support in Pennsylvania as I understand it: the agency charged with establishing paternity can act negligently and even maliciously and pay no penalty for it; but if a father misses a court date, he can be made to pay child support for a child who’s not his and thrown in jail for not doing so; and, once the outrageous behavior of the child support agency comes to light, the father has no recourse in either state or federal court. Those are fair conclusions to draw from the case of Walter Andre Sharpe about whom Glenn Sacks first wrote here (Fathers and Families, 11/20/08).
Back in 2001, Walter Andre Sharpe got a letter from Dauphin County Domestic Relations. It said he was the father of an 11 year old girl by a mother who lived in Harrisburg. But Sharpe had only been to Harrisburg once in his life and then only to buy a car. He knew he’d never been in a sexual relationship there. So he ignored the letter, and of course didn’t show up in court on the day of the hearing that resulted in an order of paternity against him, an order to begin paying child support for the girl and an order to pay over $5,000 in arrears.
Now, it turns out that there is an Andre Sharpe who was in fact the girl’s father. And he too got a letter from Domestic Relations and he too ignored it. But nothing happened to the Andre Sharpe whose DNA was shared by the girl. For reasons that aren’t clear, Dauphin County decided that, in the absence of any evidence, Walter Sharpe should be the one to pay. Two men were noticed to appear; neither did, but somehow Walter Sharpe drew the black bean.
Soon enough, he informed Dauphin County that he couldn’t be the father and would be happy to prove it via genetic testing. The county wasn’t interested; it had a judge’s signature on an order and that’s all it wanted. But county malfeasance didn’t end there, not by a long shot. Domestic Relations workers went so far as to alter their database, substituting Andre Sharpe’s date of birth, social security number and residence for those of Walter Sharpe. I assume they did that just to make their records look more consistent with their claims in court.
For years, Walter Sharpe tried to clear his name, all the while paying for a daughter who wasn’t his. He had four children who were his and was paying to support them, but his salary as a trash collector proved insufficient to support the fifth child, so he fell behind. He went to jail for six months each of four separate times. Because of that, he lost his job.
But it gets worse. Because of the girl’s age, Walter’s ex-wife and mother of his actual children concluded that he’d had an affair while they were married. So she proceeded to cut off contact between Walter’s four children and their father. Needless to say, Walter didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, go to court and attempt to rectify his ex’s wrongdoing, so he lost relationships with his children.
And still worse. Dauphin County Domestic Relations was eventually forced to explain its behavior to a judge and claimed that it had conducted a “reasonable investigation” into who was the girl’s dad. Said “reasonable investigation” turned up the wrong man, but when the Patriot-News newspaper tried to find Andre Sharpe, it did so in less than an hour. In other words, Domestic Relations looked for a man named Andre Sharpe, found one and proceeded against him even though he didn’t live where the father of the girl lived according to the mother and another Andre Sharpe did. How’s that for an investigation?
And worse yet. Once the real father was contacted, it developed that the girl had been living with him for four years. So where had Walter Sharpe’s money been going all that time? Apparently to the mother who didn’t even have the girl in her care. So what did the state do about he commission of fraud in the receipt of child support for a child who didn’t live with her? Not a thing. Keep in mind of course that, whenever we hear about child support, great emphasis is placed on the idea that, whatever else may be true, children need to be cared for and it takes money to do that, so Dad must pay. But when Mom simply pockets the $12,000 that Walter Sharpe paid over the years instead of handing it over to the real father who’s actually caring for the girl, well, that’s a different story.
It took Walter Sharpe six years to get a court to do the right thing, still over the strident objections of Dauphin County. Walter had gotten his DNA testing done and proven his non-paternity, so a state court judge finally ruled that he’s not the dad. Good. But when Walter filed suit against Dauphin County for its astonishing negligence and intentional wrongdoing, the court said ‘no.’ According to the state court, it was Walter Sharpe who was at fault. Remember that missed court date? Yep, according to the court, Walter was too ready to believe that the county might actually behave competently, that they couldn’t possibly believe he was the father, that they would never, ever alter their records solely to make his paternity appear more plausible than it actually was. He didn’t do enough to correct the errors and malice of county personnel, so he’s not entitled to compensation for the financial ruin and personal heartache that, had it not been for those errors and that malice, would never have occurred. Yes he lost his job, his children, his reputation; yes he spent months and months in jail, but it’s all his fault and none of it is the fault of people who unquestionably did wrong. Thus spake the court.
Let’s take a moment to compare Walter Sharpe and Dauphin County Domestic Relations and see if it helps us decide who should be found at fault in this colossal mess.
Walter Sharpe is just a regular guy. When this all started, he worked for a trash company, collecting trash. He didn’t have much money or education. He knew little, if anything, about the workings of the child support agency and nothing about its errors and intentional wrongdoing.
By contrast, Dauphin County has many paid employees and many of them are highly educated. The county has financial resources Walter Sharpe can’t even dream of. More importantly, Dauphin County Domestic Relations specializes in establishing paternity and collecting child support. In fact, those are its major jobs, the responsibilities taxpayers in the county pay it to do. Like most such agencies, Domestic Relations has been doing the job of establishing paternity and enforcing child support for many years and it has employees who know the system inside and out. And of course it pays lawyers who know the laws relating to the tasks set the agency by the taxpayers. In short, it has abilities and resources Walter Sharpe doesn’t, and will never, have.
So, as between Walter Sharpe and Dauphin County Domestic Relations, who would you say had the greater obligation to get things right when the issue of who this girls’ father is, who should pay to support her and how much. Yes, it seems a modest proposal indeed to suggest that the agency with all the experience, all the training, all the expertise and knowledge should be the one to which we say “You need to get it right.” It’s true that Walter Sharpe could have done more for himself and perhaps contributed a few shovelfuls to the hole he found himself in.
But according to the judge’s ruling, the county’s numerous actions of gross incompetence and ill will are to go entirely unpunished because a single impecunious man didn’t have the financial or personal wherewithal to fight hard enough, long enough, smart enough.
The latest is that a federal judge has said the same thing (Patriot-News, 5/1/13). Walter Sharpe tried that avenue too, only to be turned away. The mother kept the money, the real father didn’t have to pay, the county committed several legal wrongs, but who sustains the loss? The father. His crime? He missed a hearing in court to which he should never have been summoned.
Sounds about right.
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