Sunday, August 12, 2007

You're not the father

"It appears that you can lie through your teeth and get a guy to sign a piece of paper saying he's your child's father, and if he finds out otherwise, the courts can't do anything about it," stated David Douglas.

The story seems to have begun two years after the baby was born, in 2002. Suzy Whitley, Sam Lewis's ex-girlfriend informed him that he was the father of her son and he signed a voluntary acknowledgement of the paternity of the child. In December 2003, almost a year later, the state of Tennessee filed a petition on Whitley's behalf seeking to set support payments. According to court documents, both parties agreed that Lewis would pay $317 in monthly support payments and that he would pay $13,314 in back support payments at $50 a month.

Lewis continued to make the payments and began to assume the role of a father to the boy who was living with his ex-girlfriend. He visited the boy on weekends and provided gifts on birthdays and holidays to the child who had begun to call hin "Daddy". Lewis's friends though, told him that he wasn't the boy's father and in 2006, he sought a court-ordered paternity test.

Just as is heard so often on "The Jerry Springer Show", the DNA test proved that Lewis was not the father. A juvenile court judge then diestablished his paternity standing, terminated his future financial obligations and forgave his arrearages. The judge also ordered that Whitley pay Lewis $9,341 for the money he had already paid her, plus attorney fees and court costs which included the cost of the DNA test.

The case becomes more interesting when the state appealed the ruling on Whitley's behalf. Without disputing the deception Whitley had used with Lewis, they argued that the juvenile court judge acted beyond the scope of his jurisdiction and didn't have the authority to suspend his unpaid retroactive payments or award him reimbursement for the payments he had already made. They also argued that Lewis should seek reimbursement from the biological father, who not surprizingly both sides agree, is most likely the man Whitley was living with when the baby was conceived.

David Douglas, Lewis's attorney, argued that state law prevented the judge from modifying the original order but he could set aside the order under a motion that permits judges to set aside orders under extenuating circumstances, including fraud. Ultimately,at the end of July 2007, the Court of Appeals ruled in Whitley's favor and ordered Lewis to pay the retroactive support, Whitley's court costs and attorney fees. The decision also overturned the judgement against Whitley and Lewis can still try to obtain the money from the child's natural father, who reportedly is living with Whitley's sister.

"This really seems like an unfair result for Mr Lewis, because this guy tried to do the right thing, and instead, he got hammered by the system. I understand that the court's role is to protect children, but it shouldn't reward people who lie and use deceit," stated Douglas.

The statute was originally intended to prevent parents who owed child support from "shopping" for a sympathetic judge to reduce a support amount from another judge. Technology though, has advanced to a point where DNA can conclusively identify paternity and the law it seems, has failed to keep pace with these advances. Stephanie Walton, an expert on child support policy with the National Conference of State Legislatures has stated that the law doesn't take into account not that we can determine fairly easily, who the real father is. She feels that the courts will continue to make decisions with the child's best interest in mind until state legislatures decide to take on the issues raised in this case.

"The law has decided that the big picture is the best interests of the child. It's a case-by-case basis of deciding what's best for the child. It may be best for the child to have someone involved, even if he's not the real father," stated Walton.

I'm sorry but I don't see how it is in the best interests for a man to have to continue to make payments after he was purposely deceived and how it can be in the best interest of any child to form a relationship with a man they come to know as "Daddy," only to have that man legally walk out of their life. Since it seems that the real father is known and living nearby, I wonder if the reason Mr Lewis was deceived was because he happened to have a paycheck that could be tapped for support.

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