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Net to Snag Deadbeats Also Snares Innocent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its zeal to crack down on deadbeat dads, Los Angeles County’s automated tracking system has targeted hundreds of innocent men over the past year, creating havoc in their lives and forcing many to take blood tests to prove their virtue to the government, family and friends.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti credits the 3-year-old computer system with catching record numbers of deadbeat fathers, recovering $62 million so far this year.

But the system also is ensnaring innocent men with the same or similar names to actual deadbeats, costing them time, money and, in some cases, their reputations, according to public records and interviews. The computer system--designed to meet federal welfare reform laws--requires men to either pay up or prove their innocence.

“They’re getting dolphins with the tuna,” said Cheryl Barnes Johnson, an attorney specializing in child support cases.

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Some men say their marriages and relationships were badly damaged after receiving letters from the county saying they owe thousands of dollars to support children they fathered with other women. It can take months for the county to straighten out the error.

Walter Vollmer, a 56-year-old Saugus mechanic, received a child support bill in January for $206,000. Even with an attorney, it took him 2 1/2 months to convince the district attorney’s office that they had the wrong Walter Vollmer.

Christina, Vollmer’s wife of 32 years, said she thought of suicide--believing that her husband had led a secret life--because the government would not possibly make so serious an error.

Vollmer and his family received a letter last month from the district attorney’s office offering “our most sincere apologies.” He plans to file a lawsuit anyway.

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“They are ruining people’s lives,” he said.

County records show that 502 innocent men took blood tests over the past 15 months to escape government action against them. Defense attorneys say hundreds of others have tried to clear their name by writing letters and appearing in person.

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Garcetti defends the county’s Bureau of Family Support Operations, saying the relatively small number of mistakes--hundreds out of an estimated 500,000 cases--is a small cost for tracking down fathers and mothers who skip out on their children.

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But about 80% of the county’s 500,000 active files are cases in which the money collected reimburses the state for welfare payments to the custodial parent and child. Women must fill out a form identifying a father before they can receive public assistance, with some naming the wrong man.

The California Court of Appeals 2nd Appellate Division last week chastised Los Angeles County for its win-at-all-costs approach.

The court considered the case of a California man who was convinced by a former girlfriend that he was the father of her child. Blood tests later ruled the man out, but the results came after a judge issued a default judgment finding him the legal father.

Garcetti said the man should be required to support the child until age 18--despite the evidence--because he failed to contest the paternity before final judgment. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

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“The record in this case suggests that someone in the district attorney’s office has lost sight of the paramount duty to seek justice,” wrote Associate Justice John Zebrowski.

Garcetti said his office plans to appeal the ruling.

“Common sense may tell you that the man should not pay if he is not the father,” Garcetti said. “But the law is clear: There has to be finality to civil judgments. The man in this case knew the action was being taken and he ignored his rights.”

Federal welfare reform has put tremendous pressure on states to identify deadbeat fathers and force them to pay up. Federal laws have set a goal for states to identify 90% of the fathers of children born out of wedlock by 1999.

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Los Angeles County’s system--which incorporates the federal mandates--handles more cases than all but seven states. Its computers search for missing fathers through postal, property, tax, employment and motor vehicle records. The county is empowered to garnish wages, intercept federal and state tax refunds, as well as revoke the driver’s licenses and professional licenses of recalcitrant fathers.

States were required to have similar computer programs operating by Oct. 1, 1997, or risk the loss of all federal funding for child support enforcement.

So far only 23 states are certified. California last year scrapped an error-prone computer system that was never put into operation.

Tonnie Jackson of Rialto said the Los Angeles County system should be dumped as well. This week he sued the county to overturn a default judgment of paternity against him after blood tests proved he was not the father of a 6-year-old girl. Jackson had a short-lived relationship with the girl’s mother but said he cannot understand why the county will not admit their mistake.

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“I’ve been audited and that was no problem,” said Jackson, who already owes his attorney several thousand dollars. “My tax man got my papers together, and it was cleared away. This is much worse. I don’t know if it has an end.”

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In Los Angeles County, tens of thousands of men who have not appeared in court or spoken to a deputy district attorney have been ordered to pay child support.

Some men may not even know that an action has been taken against them, say defense attorneys. They contend that many court summons are mailed to incorrect addresses or served on the wrong men. Personal service--a summons handed directly to the person named in the lawsuit--is not required in family law cases.

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Jackson said records show he was served at an address where he no longer lived. His case is complicated by the fact that the district attorney representatives said he was in their offices in 1993, which, they say, is proof he knew of the action and should pay the support as ordered.

But Jackson said he first contacted county authorities in 1996, to find out why his $1,440 federal tax return had been intercepted.

Jackson, who makes $7.50 an hour as a security officer, won a civil lawsuit against the mother of the child last year. But Superior Court Judge Richard Montes said the judgment of non-paternity in the case did not overrule the county’s legal finding that Jackson was the father.

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Jackson--who broke down in tears during an interview--said he and his wife, Aretha, moved to Los Angeles from Alabama in 1979. They bought a home six years ago but now, he said, his credit is ruined.

Child support collection agencies throughout the country routinely report men with more than $5,000 in child support debt to credit agencies. Jackson said he has thought many times of giving up. He has considered disappearing, fearing that he is putting his wife--who forgave him for the affair--and two minor children in financial jeopardy.

“If that had been my child, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said Jackson from the couch of his lawyer’s office just down the street from Superior Court. “My wife and I talked about it and she said, ‘If that is your child, then we will make her part of our family.’ ”

Defense attorneys say Jackson’s story is not unusual. More than 70% of the county’s paternity establishments are done through default judgments, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Wayne Doss.

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Federal law requires that a state enter a default judgment of paternity if the man named in the suit does not respond in 30 days. The federal statute leaves the question of standards of service up to state law.

Since July 1995, the county has established paternity for more than 100,000 out-of-wedlock children. Jerry Fernandez, an attorney on the Family and Indigent Law Panel, said that 10% to 20% of the time the default judgments accuse the wrong man.

Doss, who heads the county’s Bureau of Family Support, said federal law requires his office to look for missing fathers even when the information from unwed mothers is incomplete.

“The system finds a man who it believes is a good match for the father we are looking for and it sends a bill,” Doss said. “If that man believes it is an error, he can come forward and we will look into it more closely. Mistakes will happen.”

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Elizabeth Schroeder of the ACLU of Southern California said the recovery system tramples on civil liberties and ignores standards of due process. She said her office has received countless complaints.

“There is a hopelessly corrupt database that guarantees a substantial number of people will be caught up in the system improperly,” Schroeder said.

She said she fears what will happen this fall when the national registry of child support orders will be ready to be compared with the national registry of new hires. “How many of those orders are for the wrong men?” she said.

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But defending even purported deadbeat dads probably won’t win much support. President Clinton in a 1994 town hall meeting praised Arkansas’ system--now the national standard--of child support enforcement in cases of out-of-wedlock births: “We started immediately beginning to process child support and creating a presumption of paternity that could be only overcome with proof.”

That is exactly what happened to David Aguilar, 26, of Sylmar. He received a letter from the county saying he owed $9,158.19 in child support and thought one call would clear his name.

Instead, he said, a clerk at the West Covina office suggested that he had been drunk and had forgotten the encounter. He thought, since his name is common, it was a simple mix-up. But the county had his Social Security number, bank account numbers and job history.

The 6-foot, 165-pound former Marine pointed out that he did not match the 5-foot, 145-pound description of the father, but was told he should consider hiring an attorney.

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Two months later, the mother of the child looked at his picture and said he was not the father.

“The law states that I am innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around,” wrote Aguilar in a March 16 letter to Garcetti. Last week he received a written apology.

“I pay my taxes. I served my country,” Aguilar said. “I don’t think I should have been treated this way. I don’t think anyone who isn’t the right guy should be treated this way.”


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