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In California, men who are declared biological fathers in paternity suits — because they defaulted — won a unique legislative “amnesty” that began on Jan. 1. For two years, with some exceptions, they can challenge that order, no matter how many years have gone by since the gavel fell. Under the amnesty program, men must prove through genetic testing that they are not the fathers. But five months since the program began, few are taking advantage of the opportunity, mainly because they are not aware of it, according to anecdotal reports from court officials. Rebecca Wightman, San Francisco Unified Family Court child support commissioner, noted that turnout in her court has not materialized — at least not yet. “We hope people take advantage of the opportunity, but we worry that they just don’t know about the law,” Wightman said. Marshall Rieger, Los Angeles County child support commissioner, estimates that there are between 250,000 and 325,000 default judgments outstanding in the county. If cases setting aside default judgments continue at the current rate, he estimates that 8,000 cases will have been heard when the two years run out. “We’re just not getting the business I would have expected,” Rieger said. “Someone has to get out there [doing outreach] if people want it to work the way it’s supposed to.” But the state is not advertising the amnesty program, according to many in the field of child support services. And the people most likely to benefit are also the least likely to be aware of the law, because they don’t yet know they have been declared fathers by a court. California’s ongoing struggles with paternity issues are reflected nationally. “Courts across the country are struggling with what to do when confronted with a man who denies paternity,” said Paula Roberts, a senior staff attorney at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. “Their decisions fall all over the map.” The number of men getting paternity tests has skyrocketed over the last decade. According to the American Association of Blood Banks 2003 survey, about 354,000 tests were performed–twice as many as eight years before. The report noted that the tests were performed for reasons other than denying paternity, such as establishing paternity. The marked increase in testing reflects the big drop in price and the notable increase in accuracy over the last decade, experts observe. California’s service of process rules, which don’t require personal service, have allowed far more default judgments than any other state, state and court officals say. According to a 2003 study by the Urban Institute, in 2000 paternity was established by default about 70 percent of the time. In comparison, New York’s default rate was about 10 percent. “Here’s the dilemma,” Roberts said. “If you don’t enter a default judgment when the guy doesn’t show up, then no one’s going to show up — why would you? The theory was that you enter an order, wages get garnished and they show up within the two years–the statute allows them to set the judgment aside . . . .But the poorest guys are not working in the above-ground economy, so their wages have not been garnished . . . .When they do surface, the time frame has passed for challenge.” The law was designed to rectify that problem. But the legislation neither mandates the California Department of Child Support Services to make the default set-aside law known, nor provides funding for it do so. “Some counties are doing outreach to community-based organizations,” said Lynn Cavenaugh, a child support department spokeswoman. “Others, because of lack of funds, aren’t doing much.” Leonard Post is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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