I recently had a first-hand lesson in the unintended consequences of government regulation. As the reader probably knows, unintended consequences are the unconsidered effects of regulation. Or, as Lowell Gallaway put it, "a failure to take into account behavioral responses in structuring public policy [which] leads to results that are often the opposite of what the rhetoric of the public policy debate suggests will happen."
My adventure began in August of 2004 when I received a letter from the Office of the District Attorney in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. My first thought was, "where in the heck is Tangipahoa Parish?" This letter informed me that I was the noncustodial (sic) parent of three children between the ages of three and twelve and that I was expected to appear two weeks hence with all appropriate financial documents so that child support payments could be arranged.
My wife received this letter with much better humor than did I.
I called the Office and spoke with the Child Support Division representative. Politely, I explained that, although I was native of Louisiana, I had been living in Alabama and Florida for nearly ten years and had only just returned. I then suggested that perhaps they had me confused with another Robert Blackstock as I had no knowledge whatsoever of the accusing mother.
The representative asked for my social security number, which I gave. After a short pause she announced, "Nope. You're him. We'll see you in two weeks."
At this point I broke down and hired a lawyer.
The lawyer listened to my story and told me that he had these cases all the time. Here's how the system works: a non-married mother applies for aid in one of Louisiana's myriad wealth distribution offices, perhaps welfare. The State then asks the mother the name of the child's (or children's) father. This is a requirement for receiving aid in Louisiana. The State then seizes the money from the recalcitrant father.
So how did I get pulled into this? After assuring my attorney several times that there was no possible way in this or any other world that I was the father of these children he told me that either my name was pulled from the Internet or someone volunteered my name to the mother (perhaps one of my students). Once the D.A.'s office knew my name and city of residence, it would be fairly easy to pull my driver's license information and learn everything about me including the aforementioned social security number.
My attorney called the D.A.'s office and told the representative the same thing I had, only with bigger words in order to justify a $175 per hour fee. He stated that I had been absent from Louisiana for almost ten years and couldn't have been available to cause the pregnancy which resulted in the two youngest children. The D.A.'s office amended the complaint and now accused me of being the noncustodial (sic) parent of only the eldest child.
We immediately sent a request for DNA testing to confirm paternity. I thought testing was a bit superfluous. If this woman knew me well enough to bear three children, wouldn't she be able to answer a few simple questions? How tall is the father? Where did he go to school? Does he have any birthmarks or tattoos? Does he have brothers? Sisters? What type of vehicles did he drive during this time? If the woman actually knew me, shouldn't she be able to answer at least 50% of these common questions?
This approach, sadly, is too simple for the State. So, DNA testing, it was.
Again, my attorney warned me; "If you take the test and you are the father, you'll have to pay for the tests. If you are not the father, the State pays for the test."
What about the mother?
"Nope. She's not charged anything."
So the mother could, in theory, just keep offering different names ad infinitum and the State would continue to harass these poor souls?
And she would never be punished in any way whatsoever?
As the Libertarian scholar, John Sophocleus would say, "Happy Day."
The D.A.'s office agreed to our demands and sent a letter ordering me to appear at the Lincoln Parish Civic Center for DNA testing on January 3, 2005 at 10am. I did so and, luckily, had the technician sign and date my order so that I would have some proof that testing had occurred.
After two months we had heard nothing from the Tangipahoa District Attorney's Office concerning the results of the test. Finally, we learned something; we learned that bureaucrats are inefficient even in Louisiana.
On March 7, an armed man appeared on my doorstep and served me with papers ordering me to appear in court and either comply with DNA testing or to show sufficient cause why I should not.
At this point, I had a proverbial aneurism.
Once again I had to call the attorney's office (did I mention that the attorney cost $175 an hour and that they charge their clients in 15 minute increments and that even a 2 minute call would cost me $43.75?). By now, my case had been kicked up to the senior partner in the firm who began calling the Assistant D.A. himself and demanding some competency.
Finally, the right hand and the left found each other in Tangipahoa Parish (accidentally, I'm sure) and sent us the lab results proving that I am no "baby's daddy." Furthermore, I received a final bill from my attorneys (that's right; it's now plural) for nearly $1500.
Which brings me back to the subject of this diatribe: unintended consequences.
I'm sure that the politicians in Louisiana had very good intentions when they wrote the current rules concerning welfare. If a man causes a woman to become pregnant and a child results, then that man must help pay to support the child.
Unfortunately, the law was written with no regard as to what will happen if a mother a) doesn't know who the father is, or b) has no intention of actually naming the father. No punishment will ever be handed down to the mother because that would "hurt the children." The result is that I (and I'm sure many others like me) end up paying large fees to attorneys in order to be protected from the State.
This is $1500 that is no longer available to my wife and I for savings, a summer vacation, or whatever other plan we might have had.
And so, as I sit here writing out a check to my attorneys, I glance up at my calendar and notice that April 15th is rapidly approaching. With that in mind, let me just say to all my masters in DC and Baton Rouge… thanks for nothing.
April 9, 2005