Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Default Daddyhood

Another wrongful-paternity case from hell:

When Walter Sharpe received the certified letter on Feb. 6, 2001, he knew the complaint for child support was a mistake.

Andre Sharpe had a different date of birth, a different Social Security number and different previous addresses.

Andre Sharpe also had an 11-year-old daughter with a woman in
Harrisburg, and Walter Sharpe knew he had been to Harrisburg only once,
to register a car. He also knew he hadn’t fathered a child to a woman
named Terri Jones on that trip.

So he ignored it.

Big mistake.

A
court entered a default judgment against Sharpe, and for the next six
years, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania hounded former trash collector to
collect child support for the girl. He lost his job, paid more than
$12,000 in support and fines, became estranged from his family (he has
four kids of his own), and was jailed four times for failing to make
payments. The county denied his repeated requests for a DNA paternity
test (and were backed up by the courts), arguing that its domestic
relations officials had sufficiently confirmed paternity “after
reasonable investigation.”

Walter Sharpe’s attorney alleges that
when he appeared in person with personal information proving he
couldn’t be the father, county officials merely changed the
biographical information on the custody forms to match Walter Sharpe’s.

After looking into Sharpe’s story, the Patriot-News newspaper
was able to determine the child’s real father, Andrew Sharpe, in less
than an hour. That’s because the girl has been living with him for the
last four years. The girl’s grandmother (who had custody for a time)
says the real father has supported the girl the entire time. The
article isn’t clear on where Walter Sharpe’s support payments have
gone.

In May 2007, a judge finally ruled that Walter Sharpe
isn’t the girl’s father.  But last October the same judge refused to
reimburse Walter Sharpe for any of his past payments, much less all the
damage done to him by the mistake. The county’s arguments are
incredible:

In court papers, the office stated it
repeatedly advised Walter Sharpe to file a “petition to disestablish
paternity” and he failed to do so for three years, so he is at fault.

It still claims he can’t prove he is not the father because there are
no DNA tests to show that, despite the fact the agency repeatedly
opposed his requests for DNA testing.

“Furthermore, [the
Department of Public Welfare] has experienced grave injustice as a
result of [Walter Sharpe's] failure to address this matter in a timely
fashion,” a joint answer filed by Domestic Relations and the state
Department of Public Welfare states.

The agency claims that
because of Walter Sharpe’s delay in challenging paternity, it is unable
to recoup support payments from the real father.

“As a result of [Walter Sharpe's] delayed actions in this matter, DPW is forced to suffer unfair and irreversible injury.”

I
don’t know if the office is correct about Sharpe failing to file a
petition to disestablish paternity, but the court papers do seem to
show the office really has no idea what’s going on with the girl, given
that she has been getting support her biological father all
along, including him actually raising her for a good portion of her
life. Meanwhile, Sharpe’s own kids not only weren’t getting the money
Sharpe was spending on wrongful payments and legal fees, the mess made
it fairly difficult for him to be an actual father for them, too.

Matt Welch wrote about this problem
for Reason back February 2004. Welfare reform laws require mothers to
name a father in order to get benefits.  State bureaucracies then hound
whomever the woman names for child support.  The problem is that
there’s little incentive for the agencies to get paternity right. Miss
that first chance to challenge–even through no fault of your own–and
prepare for years of hell trying to get your life back in order.

Related: A Canadian court ruled
last week that a Toronto man must keep making child support payments to
his ex-wife despite her admitting that her 16-year-old twins aren’t
his.