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Paternity Pandemonium II

I wanted to post a brief follow-up to Paternity Pandemonium. Mr. Rhoades wrote a comment to that post that I encourage everyone to look at. I also wanted to link to TIME online article “Despite DNA, Dad’s Paternity Denied” that was provided to me by a reader. The article does not quite get the nuances of the law correct, but it gives more of the history and highlights the two broad views of this issue.

One camp is the Biology is Paternity camp which, in its extreme, denies any meaning of marriage in regards to children born during the marriage. Here, if one donates DNA, then some legal right is deemed to have arisen out of a single moment despite violating something every culture recognizes and values – a marriage. Usually in our jurisprudence, one does not get the benefit or gain from doing something wrong. However, we have decriminalized adultery and seduction while also turning to no-fault divorces. So, those in this camp would argue, there was no “wrong” done here in the eyes of the law and the courts should not be moral arbiters of such sexual behavior. Besides, the argument proceeds, it is not about punishment or equity, it is about a new life and what is best for that child.

The other camp would be the Sanctity of Marriage camp which, in its extreme, denies a biological father any standing to be in his child’s life. Here, the argument focuses on the preservation of the marriage and the assumption is made that the ongoing presence of the biological father will destroy what is already tenuous. Some would argue that the child should never know his genetic origin because it would be harmful to know he or she is the product of an illicit affair only creating an insecure sense of his or her place in the family.

As a father, I know I would not want to be denied contact with a child I fathered. As a husband, I understand protecting my family from those outside. This is why the SCOKY decision ultimately rests on the wording of a statute. Those of that opinion pulled into the safe harbor of avoiding the appearance of judicial activism by focusing on the exact language of the relevant laws. By doing so, they essentially said, this is a matter to be decided by the people through their representatives in the Kentucky General Assembly. That is where this debate really belongs.

Mr. Rhoades plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but I will be surprised if he wins. This is because the Kentucky decision is about subject matter jurisdiction and not about whether Mr. Rhoades is the biological father or not and the U.S. Supreme Court will most likely defer to the power of the State to determine such things. So, only the General Assembly can change the outcome for future Mr. Rhoades.

As for me, the one thing I am confident of is that our judicial system should not be morally mute and that there is basic right and wrong outside of the confines of our laws (there are varying degrees of judicial activism and I believe it should be constrained to areas where statutory laws are silent). I also tend toward the Sanctity of Marriage camp and believe that the marital union, which remains a spiritual union and not merely a civil matter in my mind, trumps biology. My hope for Mr. Rhoades is that he recognizes and atones for the damage he did by participating in an extramarital affair. My hope for baby JAR’s parents is that they are convicted that JAR’s interests are paramount and wrestle with whether denying him his biological father serves those interests best. I doubt that would be the wisest course of action, but the burden is upon them to arrive at the decision. I have these hopes because even though I believe that courts have moral authority where statutory law is silent, the most just results are often found outside the courtroom and they often come out of humility rather than force.

May 1, 2008 Posted by | Family Law, Parenting, Paternity | , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The other child support law

I have had the honor of representing parents in dependency, neglect and abuse (“DNA”) actions in a few different counties. Along with working for the Cabinet for Health & Family Services in child protection, I have learned that there is little uniformity in how various issues in these actions are handled across counties. One of these issues is the handling of child support assessed against the parents who have lost custody of their child(ren). Many practitioners and few parents realize that child support in DNA actions is governed by a different statute than child support in divorce cases. The statutes that determine child support in divorce actions are in KRS Chapter 403. A hallmark of child support in divorce is the use of standardized guidelines shown in KRS 403.212. Deviation from the guidelines has to be justified by the court.

In contrast to the highly regulated child support of divorce, child support in DNA actions is governed by only one statute, KRS 610.170. The only standard this law provides is that the court shall order a “reasonable sum” and this only IF the parent is able to contribute. The statute makes no reference to the guidelines of KRS 403.212. This omission was purposeful by the legislature and the entire thrust of KRS 610.170 shows a legislative intent to give greater discretion to the judge presiding over a DNA matter and for greater leniency in the amounts levied. There are practical reasons for this policy of leniency that are beneficial both to the parents and to the State. Unfortunately, many courts do not recognize the nuances built into this law and automatically apply the standard guidelines as if a divorce were occurring. Not only do many counties stick to the guidelines, they also divide the proceedings so that the child support is handled through an entirely separate docket. This leads to other difficulties for both the county and the parents.

Becuase the child support often is handled on a separate docket, the parents end up without representation. They were likely appointed counsel in the DNA proceeding due to a low income, but the scope of representation for the court appointed counsel (“CAC”) is not expected to include other hearings, such as for child support. Becuase of the limited scope of representation and because the parents cannot afford their own counsel, they end up without legal assistance in understanding the differences in the child support laws.

Separating the proceedings also impacts the courts and the County Attorney’s office by creating double dockets. Instead of one County Attorney familiar with the details of the situation, handling one case and showing up to one set of hearings, there are two County Attorneys and two sets of hearings. This lead to judicial inefficiency. Already impoverished parents must take more time away from work or job searches in order to attend hearings that will demand money from them leading to inefficiency from an economic standpoint. In other words, it creates waste for everyone.

Of course parents who have chosen to be or have inadvertently been neglectful or abusive should still support their children financially. However, there are some differences inherent in the DNA situation that call for different treatment than a divorce. In DNA actions, a third-party, the Cabinet, is stepping in and asserting authority to take the child from the parents. Occasionally this was due to an overreaction by the Cabinet. In rare circumstances, the removal was an out and out mistake. Regardless, the parents are often devastated and have few emotional, social and financial resources to successfully navigate the turmoil this brings about. The neglect and abuse likely flowed from a mental health issue or at least a deficit of parenting skills. The Cabinet always requests, and the courts order, various assessments, education programs and treatment regimens. Almost none of these requirments are free to the parents and only the rare few parents have insurance. Thus, the parents are stressed financially beyond what one typically sees in a divorce situations.

In order to reunite the child with the parents successfully, these various assessments and treatments must occur. That means fees paid to programs and time taken off of work to attend the classes or treatments. In other words, more expenses out and less income in. It is within this context that we see why the legislature simply used “reasonable sum” as the standard for child support in DNA matters. There is no way to factor all of those variables into a set guideline like one finds in the divorce statutes. So, the legislature comtemplated giving the judge, who could see what expenses were being required of the parent, to use their discretion to set child support at a level low enough to allow for success. This sets the stage for the parents to have every advantage towards being successful.

When more parents are given greater opportunity to succeed in reunification by maximizing the resources at their disposal (i.e. by keeping child support low) the State can actually save money. Some judges and County Attorneys worry that they are holding back money from the Cabinet that will help finance sufficient workers to do the job right. In truth, the amounts contemplated would only amount to a small fraction of the budget. Rather, if children go home faster then the State will encounter greater financial savings. Consider it this way, if it typically costs around $15.00 a day for a child to be in foster care (not to mention all the indirect costs) and the parents child support per guidelines would be $10.00 a day, then the state is falling behind $5.00 a day. Mathematicians can help me here, but there comes a point where the cost of low child support with fewer days in care becomes more financially efficient than high child support with more days in care. True, there will still be parents who do not do what they need even with low child support, but that can be addressed at a three or six month review where the court reassesses matters. It is better to start out setting that stage with every benefit to the parent to encourage success.

To pull all these ideas together, the best practice would be for either zero child support or a nominal amount to be assessed at the Temporary Removal Hearing in the DNA proceeding. Then, at the Disposition hearing, for the judge to look at all the requirments of the Cabinet and the parent’s income and determine a “reasonable sum”. This cuts out any extraneous proceedings, involves only one County Attorney, and insures that the parent’s court appointed counsel can advocate for them on the child support issue. Most importantly, it allows the judge to make their best determination as to what balance of child support will best allow the parents to obtain the assessments and treatment needed to get the child home. Finally, if the parent does nothing for the first three to six months, the judge can send one more wake-up call to them by upping the child support since it would then be “reasonable” to take treatment costs out of the equation. I cannot take credit for the process I recommend, but must give that credit a very wise County Attorney (he knows who he is) who has refined it over years in one county’s Family Court (I will take credit for illuminating the rationales for the policies though).

January 11, 2008 Posted by | Family Law, Politics | , , , , , , | 2 Comments