Family Court Judge Sheds Light on Unfair Child Support Practices in Texas

Judge David Hanschen lets men challenge whether the kids they support are theirs. And the Texas Attorney General's Office is pissed.

Aesthetics aside, through a year's worth of unorthodox moves regarding the way Texas enforces child support laws, the judge now finds himself in a battle against the largest law enforcement agency in the state. In February 2007, he complained that the attorney general's office was deceptively asking men to sign away valuable rights when they first appeared in child support court, and last summer he declared that the office's process for notifying presumed fathers of their court dates violated due process.

His recent authorization of paternity testing may have been the last straw for the office. E-mails viewed by the Dallas Observer and interviews with assistant attorneys general reflect that in early February of this year, supervising attorneys within the office's Child Support Division launched a concerted campaign to collect affidavits from nearly a dozen staff lawyers—in some cases exerting pressure on them—with the apparent goal of filing a complaint alleging judicial misconduct against Hanschen and possibly fellow family court Judge Lynn Cherry. (She sides with Hanschen on many of these issues.)

Whatever the motivation of the attorney general's office, its response to challenges from these Dallas judges seems heavy-handed. "It's very rare," says University of Texas School of Law professor Jack Sampson, who co-wrote the Texas Family Code. "The way you're supposed to correct judges' errors is by appealing, not by attacking the judge directly."

Family court Judge Lynn Cherry says paternity testing should be more widely available.
MARK GRAHAM
Family court Judge Lynn Cherry says paternity testing should be more widely available.
Family law attorney Kathy Ehman-Clardy says she wasn't surprised when Judge Hanschen ordered paternity testing for her client since he'd done it in a case she worked on before.
MARK GRAHAM
Family law attorney Kathy Ehman-Clardy says she wasn't surprised when Judge Hanschen ordered paternity testing for her client since he'd done it in a case she worked on before.

But there is much at stake for the attorney general's office. A powerful state bureaucracy accustomed to getting its way, the office touts its dogged pursuit of deadbeat dads and casts itself as an advocate for children. The office's Child Support Division is a prized component of Attorney General Abbott's administration. The office has been nationally recognized for leading the country in child support collections, with a record $2.3 billion for its 2007 fiscal year. Since his election in 2002, Abbott has made child support a major focus of his office and used it as a rallying cry in his 2006 re-election campaign.

But to critics, the office's unwillingness to acknowledge that some of its practices may railroad poor, uneducated men into financial hardship is evidence of more sinister motives. The office receives federal funds based in part on the amount of child support that it collects and distributes, giving the Child Support Division a budgetary incentive to close as many cases as it can, no matter whose rights it might trample.

Hanschen has also drawn criticism, with some observers saying he "sets himself above the law" and legislates from the bench. But his supporters counter that he's merely shedding light on the problematic laws that govern the messy matters of sex, fidelity and truth in paternity matters. In fact, lawmakers and fathers' rights activists have been lobbying across the state and the country for changes to a body of laws that are crucial for assisting women and children but can also saddle the wrong men with onerous child support obligations, seized assets and even jail time.

————

It was a Tuesday morning in late February. A dozen women sat on benches on the third floor of the George Allen Sr. Courts Building, which houses Dallas County's IV-D courts, where assistant attorneys general champion the child support rights of low-income moms.

Some of the women held swaddled infants; others chased after toddlers who skipped down the hallway laughing, blissfully ignorant of the proceedings that brought their mothers there. While a few sullen men talked on their cell phones in low voices, a middle-aged black woman complained to a young mother. "I don't understand why they have you come here and sit so someone can mediate—we can mediate just fine," she said, shaking her head about the errant father who wasn't supporting his kids. "It just adds up and adds up and adds up."

Inside one of the three packed IV-D courtrooms—with its voluminous child support docket—Associate Judge Sean Finn scolded a tall blond man in a suit who had consistently missed his payments. "You need to understand that you need to pay your child support each and every month, not just before you come to court," the judge said loudly, his face stern.

The man nodded.

"She's losing time off her job to come down here and get money from you that you're not paying, and I don't want to bring her down here again."

These are the types of scenes most people think of when they hear the words "child support" or "deadbeat dads"—frustrated single mothers who turn to the state for help as they struggle to care for their children while thwarted by men who skip town, won't work or simply refuse to pay. Hanschen, who as a judge has sent dozens of deadbeat dads to jail, is more than a little familiar with such problems. It's just that other problems seem to be largely ignored.

"The vast majority of the work the Attorney General does is necessary—it's providing legal services to poor people, and we need to have child support," he says. "There are, however, some huge holes that have been created by these laws."

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