Agency Culpable in Child Support Scam

Last week, Viola Trevino carried her 5-year-old “daughter” into an Albuquerque court to satisfy a judge’s demand to produce the child.

Complications arose.

One: Trevino had kidnapped the child moments before to pass off as her daughter. Two: the “real” daughter never existed. Three: the “father” and ex-husband Steve Barreras had paid $20,000 in child support. Four: the system finally noticed Trevino was lying.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has asked the state’s Human Services Department for a full report.

Specifically, he wants to know how several government agencies became not only unwitting partners in the fraud, but also resisted efforts to correct it.

Richardson deserves a tip of the hat for taking responsibility. The official response to child support or welfare debacles is usually silence.

Sometimes a finger of accusation is pointed at specific individuals as though the abuse resulted from a few “bad apples” in an otherwise clean barrel. Richardson is acknowledging there is a problem with the system itself.

The system is broken. In recent years, heartbreaking stories from every state have flooded the media. Often they focus on the plight of children who are abused or neglected by those assigned to protect them. But just as often they highlight the abuse of parents – especially non-custodial fathers – who are processed as paperwork, not people.

With Trevino, several government agencies processed papers. Trevino falsified a paternity test by using a sample from an adult daughter who is Barreras’ child and then had a family friend process it at the lab. On the basis of the test, Trevino obtained a court order for child support.

Trevino also obtained a Social Security card, a Medicare card and a birth certificate for the “daughter.”

When a fraud is so blatant, there is a tendency to blame the victim for somehow facilitating his or her own victimhood. But Barreras, who works as a corrections officer in law enforcement, attempted repeatedly to expose the fraud and to protect himself.

His petition for a restraining order was denied. Evidence that his vasectomy, conducted a year prior to the child’s “birth,” had left him with a zero sperm count, was ignored. Phoning and writing to New Mexico’s child support agency to have them verify his daughter’s non-existence resulted in a letter. The child enforcement worker stated, “your daughter does exist, as I am sure you already knew.”

Barreras went so far as to hire a private investigator to expose the scam. Indeed, without his persistent refusal to be victimized, the fraud would have probably never come to light. It would have remained just one more injustice tucked away and protected by the system’s closed file.

Richard Farr of the family-oriented KRightsRadio has spearheaded an investigation of the matter. [For an interview on this topic with Barreras’ second wife, click here.] Farr calls the case “an egregious example of an overzealous child support agency who apparently ignored the alleged father’s repeated cries … Unfortunately, too many child support agencies are virtually accountable to no one.”

Reports from an investigative journalist at KOBTV, Albuquerque, finally brought enough pressure to bear that Trevino was ordered to produce the child in court. On the day of her hearing, Trevino went to a mall, where she convinced a grandmother and her 2-year-old granddaughter that they should all go to see Santa Claus. Instead, Trevino took them to the courthouse, snatched the girl, and tried to pass her off as the missing daughter.

The panicked grandmother could not keep up with Trevino and got left behind in the parking lot. She stated: “I thought I was never going to see my baby girl again. It’s the scariest thing.”

Richardson’s question keeps rising: how could this happen?

A partial explanation is that the child welfare system seems to automatically favor the claims of custodial mothers over non-custodial fathers.

Consider one scenario. A custodial mother swears under oath to have given birth and perhaps provides false documents. In many states, if she also swears that the absent father is violent, her statement can result in a restraining order that de facto terminates the father’s visitation rights. If a subsequent order to pay child support is delivered to an invalid address, which is often provided by the mother, then the father may not respond within the window of time provided for a protest. Now he must pay, go to jail or endure a process similar to the one Barreras suffered.

But why did the child support enforcement system not follow up despite complaints? Farr suggests an answer: “[S]ome officials see child support agencies as revenue-generating agencies. States make money off the collection of child support while the taxpayers lose money at the federal level overall. Too often, this money-mindedness does not give incentives for agencies to do the right thing for children and families.”

The stakes are higher than money, however. If Barreras had fallen behind in support payments, he would have been sent to jail. His life might have been destroyed.

Barreras is reportedly suing to recover the $20,000. There is some indication he may also sue other individuals who “perpetuated” the fraud. According to Barreras’ attorney: “the parties that were involved in this fraud will be sought. We’ve played defense. Now, it’s time to play offense.”

It’s about time.

January 6, 2005