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TX AG's Office: Meeting Quotas to Keep the Federal Money Flowing
The Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office is motivated by quotas. Not hiring quotas, but quotas for the number of paternities established and the amount of child support collected. Everything else takes a back seat. That's the message I received when I talked at length to Melissa Puntenney the other day. She spent six years, from 1998 - 2004, working in the Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office. Puntenney went to work there after a long stint as a legal assistant to a Texas Supreme Court Justice. What she told me is at once hair-raising and right in line with reports by others who have worked for child support enforcement authorities. One such person is Carol Rhodes who worked for years in Michigan's child support bureaucracy. She wrote a book about her experiences and her take on the child support system there can be summed up in four words - "It's all about money." Here's a piece I wrote about her. Puntenney told me that each unit in the child support division has to meet goals for paternities established and child support collected. That's because failure to meet those goals means federal funding will dry up. So everything is aimed at meeting those goals. And people with goals to meet figure out all sorts of creative ways to meet them, and not all are legal. That's nothing new. In Europe in the Middle Ages, tax collectors were paid a percentage of what they collected, the theory being that they'd be more, shall we say, diligent in their efforts than if they were paid a straight salary. And so they were. Eventually the arrangement was dropped because tax collectors were resorting to such brutal measures to squeeze every last sou out of their targets. Well, the same thing is going on now in the child support game. Huge sums of federal money are tied directly to meeting goals for paternity establishment and collection of child support. So just like in the Middle Ages, Texas child support officers do some remarkable things to establish paternity and collect support. In the paternity establishment field, according to Puntenney, the AG's Office doesn't much care who they tag. When an unmarried woman has a child, the government wants to know who the dad is. It wants to know so that, if the woman ever receives welfare payments, or she or the child receive Medicaid, it'll know to whom to go for reimbursement, i.e. Dad. Of course women know the game, and if the father is their boyfriend and they don't want him stuck with a future bill, they'll just give the state a name - any name. The child support division won't be able to locate him of course, because he's fictional, but that's no big deal to them. They've "established paternity" and therefore the case counts toward their goal. That's no way to run a railroad, but not particularly harmful. What's definitely harmful is the practice of giving notice of hearings by publication - or not giving it at all - to men named as the father. Without notice (who reads the Legal Notices section of the paper?), the men can't defend the allegations of paternity and a default judgment can be taken against them. That means their paternity will be adjudicated once and for all, and child support will be assessed, their wages garnished, etc. Often as not, by the time that's done, a hefty arrearage has been incurred, so men who aren't the father are behind before they even start. That's exactly the system California had several years ago when one principled trial judge simply refused to go along with the patently unfair and illegal racket. Despite the fact that he was violating California law, he refused to issue a default judgment against a man everyone knew wasn't the father. The appellate court upheld the ruling and the whole system changed. A default judgment without notice is exactly what happened to Keddrick Clemons who also had the dumb luck to have a foster mother who knows the workings of the AG's Office inside and out. Most guys don't. Puntenney told me about the worst horror story she encountered in her time working for the Texas Attorney General's Office. A woman in Texas named a man as the father of her five children. The AG's Office located a man in Oregon with the same name and went to work. It didn't tell the man about the allegations or the hearings to adjudicate them. It took a default judgment against a man who wasn't the father, had never met the mother and had never even been to Texas. It promptly began garnishing his wages for five children. Puntenney talked to the man at length and finally told him what to do to fix the situation - get an Oregon public official involved. That, it turns out, is the magic bullet. In fact, the Texas AG's Office even has an organization within it called POI, which stands for Public Official Inquiry. It seems that when a state legislator, city councilperson or some other elected official calls the AG's Office, they sit up and take notice. The man in Oregon got his payments stopped in just that way. The way the AG's Office treats Public Officials is worlds away from how it treats We the People. That's perhaps the thing that riles up Melissa Puntenney the most. Men, it seems, call there all the time seeking help. According to Puntenney, they call to say the mother is abusing the child or is a drug or alcohol addict. They complain that she thwarts visitation. They complain that she's moved away, that she doesn't spend the money on the child, etc., etc. The AG's Office doesn't want to hear it. In fact, there is an iron rule in the Child Support Division that Puntenney was repeatedly in trouble for violating. No one there is supposed to talk to a complaining father for any longer than four minutes. Talk longer or actually try to help the guy and you get in trouble. Indeed, when Puntenney was there, the child support division had an unofficial motto - "Answer the phone, not the question." So men calling there to try to get help or even basic information, like where a child was, were ignored. "I saw this every day," Puntenney told me. So Greg Abbott's office will tell you that what happened to Keddrick Clemons was all an unfortunate error that's now been corrected. So all's well that ends well. Indeed, that's what the lawyers told the judge in the final hearing - it's all just a terrible mistake. Don't believe it for a second. It's not a mistake, it's policy. The instant those goals were established for paternity establishment and collection of support, the outrages visited on Keddrick Clemons and thousands of other men were bound to happen. My guess is that that's why the Texas Legislature just unanimously passed a law allowing any man to challenge his child support obligation based on genetic testing. It's not only fair, it's the only way a man can defend himself against one of the world's most callous bureaucracies - the Texas Attorney General's Office.