The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently ran articles on a case that should outrage any fair-minded person. Georgia man Frank Hatley was in a Cook County jail for over a year for failure to pay child support. However, DNA tests proved that the child in question was not biologically his.
He had never been married to or even cohabiting with the boyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mother. The two had a brief affair and when the mother had the baby in 1987, she told Hatley that the baby was his.
A couple of years later, the mother applied for and received public assistance. The state demanded reimbursement from Hatley who agreed to make those payments believing the boy was in fact his son. In 2000, DNA tests showed that Hatley was not the biological father. A court ordered that Hatley be relieved of any obligations for future support of the boy. However, this order did not relieve him of the back payments owed when it had been assumed he was the father so Hatley continued making those payments from the money he earned at his job of unloading charcoal grills from shipping containers.
In 2007, Hatley was laid off from his job. Unable to afford housing, he lived out of his car. Nevertheless, he continued to make child support payments to the state out of his unemployment benefits.
However, he fell behind in his payments, was found in contempt of court and jailed. He was recently released because he is indigent. Soon after his release, a judge relieved him from any obligation to pay the support on which he was in arrears Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but which he never should have owed in the first place.
It is good that Hatley is free and relieved of any future financial obligations in the case. However, this does not rectify the injustice that he has suffered. It does not return the money he already paid out of his extremely limited funds nor does it make up for the thirteen months he spent in jail.
The Hatley case illustrates a crying need for an overhaul of the child support system. Firstly, there is the fact that poverty is not a defense against the failure to pay child support. Even if the child had been his, the facts are that Hatley was unable to adequately support himself and did not have the money to support the child. However, the law took a jobless, penniless man living out of his car to jail for not making child support payments. This is a modern day version of the old Victorian horror of debtorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prison.
People should not go to jail in 21st Century America just for being poor Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but Frank Hatley did and so have many others.
Of course, the case began because of a misidentification in paternity. Many observers would criticize the mother as a liar and see her as someone who should be prosecuted for what is often called Ã¢â‚¬Å“paternity fraud.Ã¢â‚¬Â I do not. The mother was there at the time of the conception but it is unlikely that she was taking notes. Human memory is extremely fallible and this fallibility is exacerbated by the emotionality of questions involving sex and reproduction. Given these truths, a DNA test should be routinely taken before paternity is assigned. If the DNA test is negative, a man could still voluntarily agree to assume the role of the father Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with the financial responsibilities incurred as a result Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but it would be his free and informed choice.
That we need to fix this system is obvious when a man has been treated as a criminal and jailed for failing to provide money he does not have for a child who is not his.