Jesse Rivera loves his children. He and wife Amanda have three.
Providing for a family of five is a challenge on the salary Rivera earns as an auto mechanic, and that was before he was told by Arizona and Nevada authorities he was responsible for another mouth to feed.
Rivera was notified in November 2007 he was responsible for child support following a default judgment filed by Cynthia Hill in 2000. Arizona and Nevada child welfare officials had been chasing him ever since.
Problem was, Jesse Rivera wasn’t the father of Cynthia Hill’s son, Joseph. Although the two dated briefly back in 1999 in Arizona, Rivera knew he wasn’t responsible for the child. He was never served with a claim of paternity or a notice of default judgment against him.
The wheels of justice turned without his knowledge. Authorities started to garnish Rivera’s wages, and ordered him to pay almost $600 a month in child support and pick up the boy’s health insurance costs. If he were going to get out from under a crushing monthly payment that would push his family into the street, he’d have to persuade several social services skeptics who encounter endless excuses.
Rivera managed to connect through friends with Michelle McCracken, a law clerk for attorney Larry Weinsteen. Although Weinsteen doesn’t practice family law, he was troubled by Rivera’s predicament and took the case pro bono.
Rivera had called the Arizona Department of Economic Security, Child Support Enforcement and located Hill, who agreed to submit to a DNA test that would establish whether he was the father of the boy. In February, the test result showed there was zero chance Rivera was the child’s biological father.
So that settled the matter, right?
Not at all.
The Arizona bureaucrats informed Rivera they “did not have the authority to disprove paternity” and would continue to garnish his wages. In fact, Rivera lost his IRS refund and stimulus checks.
Weinsteen filed a motion to set aside the default judgment and had it served on the appropriate parties in both states. But in August he learned the Clark County district attorney’s office had filed an opposing response.
Rivera wasn’t the father and had the test result to prove it, but he’d still have to go through the legal process. All the while, authorities were carving on his paycheck to support someone else’s child.
Weeks passed before an Oct. 28 hearing was held in Child Support Department Hearing Master Sylvia Teuton’s presence. Weinsteen argued the obvious: His client simply wasn’t the father of the child. At the last moment, the deputy district attorney concurred.
After all, Weinsteen learned, it was established in the government’s file that Cynthia Hill had been collecting child support checks on the boy’s behalf from a Christopher Austin for some time. Whether Austin was the father wasn’t made any clearer when, as McCracken recalls, an Arizona child support caseworker admitted Hill had also opened a paternity case on the boy’s behalf against a Matthew Fornander.
That’s not one, not two, but three child support claims for one child. I’m not sure what that looks like to the experts in Arizona and Nevada, but it sure looks like fraud to me.
Meanwhile, Jesse Rivera is out more than $7,000. Without Weinsteen and McCracken’s free legal assistance, he’d still be paying nearly $600 a month to support a child not of his making. As yet, no one seems eager to take a harder look at a system that seems easy to manipulate.
“It seemed like common sense would dictate that once we provide proof that Mr. Rivera was not the father of this child, it shouldn’t be incredibly complicated to get government officials to stop harassing him,” Weinsteen said. “But it turned out, unfortunately, that it’s not that simple. Once I got involved, I realized how horrible things were for him, and how difficult it is once you’re caught in the system.
“Every single step of the way I feel like Mr. Rivera was getting screwed.”
Without improved communication and notification across state lines, Jesse Rivera won’t be the last one victimized. He knows he was lucky to find a lawyer willing to work for free.
He’s $7,000 poorer, but at least now Rivera can go back to supporting his own family.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.