November 25, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
It's a victory for Johnson who can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing she fought the system and finally, won.
But is it a victory? Did Jean Johnson “win?” If so, it’s a Pyrrhic one.
Jean Johnson’ son Lance was married to a woman who goes unnamed by this article (News4, 11/13/19). They had two children, but Lance’s wife had an affair with another man and gave birth to his child. She and Lance divorced and he was ordered to pay child support for his two children. DNA evidence cited by the court proved Lance to be the father of only those two.
Documents obtained by News 4 show the courts have confirmed the child in question was fathered through a relationship the child's mother had with another man years ago, while she was married to Johnson's son.
Lance seems to have paid the support he owed for his two kids, but the state child support enforcement agency, the Child Support Enforcement Division, decided he owed for all three children. It therefore began calculating arrears based on his non-payment for the child who’s not his. Lance moved out of state, but his mother, Jean, began a fight with the CSED to rectify its mistake and stop dunning Lance for money he didn’t owe.
That fight took 12 years. Yes, 12 years.
Now, exactly where the agency got the idea that Lance had been ordered to pay for three children is a mystery.
[T]hat decree, the Order for Child Support dated 2004, clearly states that Jean's son Lance was to pay child support for two children, not three.
Jean brought all that to the attention of CSED officials, but they ignored her. She persisted, but got nowhere. Eventually, the television station whose article is linked to got involved and received the same treatment.
First we were told, the agency "can't disclose personal information." Then we received an explanation that "the Division operates from the documents provided."
Finally, the state told us they "do not have the authority to change an order."
Of course the agency can’t unilaterally change an order, but in this case, it didn’t need to. It just needed to “operate from the documents provided,” i.e. the court’s order. But it didn’t. Over many years, it continued trying to collect money from Lance that he didn’t owe and that court documents showed he didn’t owe. Eventually that all added up to a hefty $60,000.
Finally, fed up, Jean Johnson went to court. The hearing took “only minutes” before Family Court Master Greg Shannon who ruled that the original order says what it says and ordered the state to recalculate Lance’s continuing child support obligation, if any.
Is that a “victory?” In the sense that the judge did the right thing and the state was found to have wrongly charged Lance child support, interest and fees, yes it’s win. But in the sense that Jean Johnson spent 12 years of her life fighting a completely unnecessary fight, it’s not. How much time did she spend? How much money? And why did she have to do any of it?
It’s tempting to chalk this one up to standard, off-the-shelf bureaucratic inertia and that probably played a role. But more likely, it’s a child support system that pays states for all the “support” they collect. The more they collect, the more they get paid. Lance Johnson was in their crosshairs, so, despite the fact that he didn’t owe for the third child, they didn’t go to the trouble of locating the actual dad, going to court, getting an order against him and adding another case to their stack of files.
Instead of simply admitting their error, they just kept on doing what they did, i.e. that which was legally and morally wrong.
And what was the child’s mother doing all this time? Did she explain matters to the state? Did she assist in righting an obvious wrong?
And what about the third child’s actual father? He seems to have gone all this time without paying a penny to support it. Does he even know about his child? Who does the child (now an adult) believe to be its father?
The state’s recalcitrance is bad enough by itself, but if it had done the right thing, the right man would have paid, Lance would have been let off the hook and Jean would have spent her time in better ways. But more importantly, responsibility for supporting the child would have fallen where it belonged and a child would have known its true father. Who knows, maybe he’d have gone to court to secure his parental rights and the two would have formed a real and meaningful relationship.