By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On a March afternoon in the chambers of his 254th Court, Hanschen wears his trademark gray hair pulled back in a long braid. His intense blue eyes and gray beard make him look a bit like a bookish Gandalf the Grey. Speaking slowly and methodically, he lays out his concerns about the laws governing the presumption of paternity, especially the four-year statute of limitations. "I'm not out to destroy anything. I just want the right dad paying child support or going to jail for not paying."
Twelve years ago when in private practice, Hanschen represented a client who came to him after a girlfriend he hadn't seen in a decade showed up with a 10-year-old and announced it was his. The man, a barber in Oak Cliff, took the woman at her word and signed an Acknowledgement of Paternity, the legal document that makes a man the legal father until the child reaches 18. The man later became suspicious and got a DNA test that showed he wasn't the father. But it was too late. "They hit him with $32,000 in back child support," Hanschen says. "He lost his business and went underground."
As a judge, Hanschen's first problem with the practices of the attorney general's Child Support Division occurred in February 2007, shortly after he had taken the bench. Because he knew he would be hearing many appeals from the IV-D courts, he decided to learn how things were being done there. He noticed that when a man arrived, an assistant attorney general would ask him if he had a lawyer. If he said no, as most did, the attorney simply told him to sign in. Hanschen glanced at the signed papers and discovered that the forms were actually appearance sheets. After the lines for name, address and phone number, a paragraph at the end stated, "I wish to avail myself of the jurisdiction of this court and hereby make my appearance in this case for all purposes." By signing it, Hanschen says, the men were giving up their right to challenge the court's jurisdiction over them.
After discussing his concerns with several judges and lawyers, he directed the IV-D judges, as well as the assistant attorneys general in each of the child support courts, to stop using the forms or to remove the last paragraph and signature line. The attorney general staffers in one court only stopped after a conversation that Hanschen describes as "forceful."
Jerry Strickland, the attorney general's communications director, confirms that these forms are no longer used in Dallas County but defends their use elsewhere in the state. "They allowed our staff to note who appeared in court on a given day," Strickland says. "They had no legal effect on the outcome of parents' cases."
But to Hanschen, there could have been adverse effects. If no one explained to them their rights and what the form meant, he wonders, what else wasn't being explained?
UT's Sampson doesn't take as dire a view of the appearance sheets as Hanschen, noting that the men had already received notice and could still request DNA testing. But he agreed that the process can be inequitable. "It's kind of unfair to get someone to sign something they don't understand," he says. "Some of them can't read, they're poor—so their chances of understanding everything they sign is the same as you understanding everything on an insurance policy...And the worst thing here is it's for 18 years."
Indeed, once unmarried men sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity—either in the hospital when the child is born or afterward in the IV-D courts, contesting paternity—with or without DNA proof—can be a daunting task. "If a man goes out and gets DNA testing that says it's not his child, but it's after four years, he's screwed," says a local assistant attorney general who asked not to be named. "You've got 17-year-old kids signing these things, and they don't even know what they're doing."
When hospital staffers ask fathers to sign the form, the paperwork cites DNA testing as an option, but young, unwed fathers are unlikely to request it in front of the mother and her family.
"I had a recent case where both parents were 16," the attorney says. "Both families are there—when is he supposed to say, 'I want DNA?' He'd be accusing her of sleeping with someone else." It's important for children to have fathers, the lawyer adds, but "now you've just allowed a mother to name whoever she wants to name, and if the guy is gullible or ignorant enough to sign it, he's stuck."
Hanschen's second problem with the Child Support Division procedures arose last summer, when he heard about a case in which a man, ordered to pay child support, said he hadn't gotten notice of the proceedings against him. By law, the attorney general's office may notify presumed fathers of these proceedings with a first-class letter instead of personal service by a constable, deputy sheriff or process server. If the man doesn't get the letter—for example, if his address has changed—and fails to show up for court, a default judgment is entered against him, and he can no longer contest paternity or the amount of child support.