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A Bad Assumption in Justice

It's hard to believe that something like this can happen anywhere, much less in the United States:

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (CNN) — Francisco Rodriguez owes more than $10,000 in back child support payments in a paternity case involving a 15-year-old girl who, according to DNA results and the girl's mother, is not his daughter.

He now has DNA results that show the 15-year-old girl wasn't fathered by him. He even has an affidavit from the girl's mother — a former girlfriend from 1990 — saying he's "not the father" and asking that Rodriguez no longer be required to pay child support.

Yet the state of Florida is continuing to push him to pay $305 a month to support the girl, as well as the more than $10,000 already owed. He spent a night in jail because of his delinquent payments.

Why is he in such a bind?

He missed the deadline to legally contest paternity. That's because, he says, the paperwork didn't reach him until after the deadline had passed.

I've heard a lot of anecdotal horror stories about how badly men are treated by the family court system. This case is especially tragic because it could have been prevented so easily.

Rodriguez's odyssey began in 1990, when he says at age 16 he had a four- to five-month relationship with a woman CNN is not identifying. He says when the relationship ended, he did not hear from her again until child support papers arrived at his home in 2003.

"My wife and I both had a confused look, and we're wondering, 'Where is the DNA test?'" he says.

But it was long past Florida's deadline to contest paternity. A court had already named him the father three years before when he did not respond to notices to appear, notices he says he never received because he had moved a lot.

Legislators can prevent this from happening again with the stroke of a pen.

The incorrect assumption in this legal process is that something mailed is always received. That isn't true; the postal system is not reliable. There's a dyslexic person somewhere in my chain of mail delivery and I regularly get mail addressed to my neighbors, whose street address is a transposition of mine. I've received damaged mail with large pieces missing. Just last week I had someone else's mail stuck tightly to the back of my own. (I unstuck it and, since its stamp hadn't been canceled, just threw it in my outgoing mail.) Mail can be stolen from mailboxes, lost in truck or plane crashes during delivery, or lost in other ways. And yes, mail can be sent to an old address and could be thrown away instead of forwarded.

Legal deadlines should be established with respect to when the paperwork is received, not sent — that's basic fairness. And all that's needed to both confirm receipt and establish the deadline is to send paperwork by certified mail.

I believe spending $2.65 for certified mailing of the original notices to appear would have prevented this tragic situation.

Legislators, raise your pens. It is your responsibility to fix this broken process.


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