In the article below Tulsa World reporter Jarrel Wade details the way the Oklahoma child support system has ruined the life of Brande Samuels. I discussed the problem of men being "defaulted" into fatherhood in my co-authored column New American Bar Association Article Points to Crisis in False Paternity Judgments (Baltimore Sun, 8/20/06).
One interesting note--in a sidebar to the story, the paper reported that within a year "there were 3,127 paternity tests conducted in DHS cases. Of those, 781 of the alleged fathers were found not to be the genetic father." For those counting, that's a 25% false rate.
From Child support law leaves man a default dad (Tulsa World, 10/13/2008):
Convicted and incarcerated for possession of drugs in 2002, Brande Samuels made a deal.
He promised himself and his family that when he left his prison cell, he would work hard to build a stable and positive life.
After two years in prison, he was released early on good behavior and worked for less than minimum wage while he trained to become a welder.
But that's when he first got notice from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Child Support Enforcement Division that he owed child support, he said.
Now, Samuels owes about $13,000 in back child support, he lives with his ailing grandfather and DHS seizes portions of his wages every month.
"The last four years have been the worst in my life," Samuels said about life since leaving prison in 2004. "I went into so much debt."
Samuels said under other circumstances he would take full responsibility for the child as a father should.
But he is not the father.
Samuels was aware of the possibility that he might be the father during the pregnancy, he said. But the mother had been in another relationship at the same time.
"She wouldn't even allow me to sign the birth certificate," he said.
Two months later, the mother — Nadia Smith — put his name down as the father when she filed for child support, which Samuels wouldn't learn about until after his Oklahoma prison sentence, he said.
"They make (the mother) give up a name for the potential father. If she doesn't give up a name, then she can't get any assistance," Samuels said about the process to receive child support.
Jeff Wagner, spokesman for DHS, said when a mother is opening a child support case, she names the alleged father and provides "a great deal of information" in the Mother's Affidavit of Paternity.
In 2004, when Samuels left prison and learned of his obligation to DHS, case workers told Samuels if he wanted to fight the original order and get a hearing, he needed a lawyer, he said.
"I just want to be heard," he said. "The court was made for justice. It was made to help make the right decision."
Samuels did not have enough money to pay a lawyer, and no one would take his case for free, so in 2006, he approached Neighbor for Neighbor, a Tulsa nonprofit organization. They helped him prepare papers to require the mother to provide the child for a DNA test.
He found out then that the mother had left the state and had to be tracked down. She had left Oklahoma for Texas, Texas for Iowa, and then Iowa for Mississippi between 2004 and 2007, he said.
Neighbor for Neighbor helped Samuels track her through the courts and filed court papers seeking a DNA test from the child in March 2007, according to court records.
Two months later, Samuels received DNA evidence that the child support had been based on a false assumption. He was not the father — 0.00 percent chance.
"I was hurt. I was actually hurt because they put me through all this stuff without the child even being mine," he said.
After his three years of work, he believed he would be forgiven all his debt for the child, he said.
But it wasn't forgiven, and according to Oklahoma law, it won't be forgiven.
In child support cases, the burden of proof is on the alleged father — the accused — according to Oklahoma statutes.
An alleged father must appear at a child support hearing to request a paternity test. If he does not appear, he is legally designated as the father and child support is established in most cases.
Once designated as the father, that person is financially responsible for the child until he or she is 18 or adopted with a few stipulations for petitions which may vacate the original order, according to Oklahoma statutes.
DHS records show that Samuels was served papers to appear for his child support hearing in 2001, but Samuels said he was working in Texas at the time and could not have received the notice.
Wagner said by Oklahoma law someone can be legally served if the subpoena is put into the hands of someone 15 or older who lives at the same residence as the person.
But Samuels said the documents never touched his hands.
Regardless of the outcome of the DNA test, which Samuels spent three years trying to get, it was already too late.
Samuels was ruled the default father in 2001, and legally, DNA has no bearing.
"If you got me on default, you should still have to prove that I'm the father," he said.
This is the second recent story in the media of a default father being forced to pay child support in a bureaucratic nightmare with DHS.
The first, reported by The Oklahoman, was about Micheal Thomas of Tulsa, who had shown that he had never even met the mother and that he had DNA evidence that showed he wasn't the father. Still, he became a default father after missing his initial court hearing.
DHS does not keep statistics on the number of established fathers or default fathers who are not genetically related to the child they are responsible for, Wagner said.
In the eyes of the law and DHS, once paternity is established, there is no difference.
DHS officials would not comment on whether any changes have been made in establishing paternity since the Micheal Thomas case was reported.
I suggest readers thank reporter Jarrel Wade for reporting on the story by clicking here.
We previously covered the Michael Thomas story at CS Enforcement Erroneously Badgers College Athlete, He Forfeits Scholarship & Drops Out. Thanks to several readers for sending the story.