PHOENIX — Nick Olivas became a father at 14, a fact he wouldn’t learn for eight years.
While in high school, Olivas had sex with a 20-year-old woman. As he sees it now, she took advantage of a lonely kid going through a rough patch at home.
State law says a child younger than 15 cannot consent with an adult under any circumstance, making Olivas a rape victim. Olivas didn’t press charges and says he didn’t realize at the time that it was even something to consider.
The two went their separate ways. Olivas, now 24 and living in Phoenix, graduated from high school, went to college and became a medical assistant.
Then two years ago, the state served him with papers demanding child support. That’s how he found out he had a then-6-year-old daughter.
“It was a shock,” he said. “I was living my life and enjoying being young. To find out you have a 6-year-old? It’s unexplainable. It freaked me out.”.
He said he panicked, ignored the legal documents and never got the required paternity test. The state eventually tracked him down.
Olivas said he owes about $15,000 in back child support and medical bills going back to the child’s birth, plus 10 percent interest. The state seized money from his bank account and is garnisheeing his wages at $380 a month.
FEAR AND FRUSTRATION.
He has become one of the state’s 153,000 active child-support cases, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security division of Child Support Services.
In May alone, payments were not made in 49 percent of those cases, according to the agency.
Olivas’ fear has turned to frustration.
He wants to be in his daughter’s life and is willing to pay child support going forward. But he says it’s not right for the state to charge him for fees incurred when he was still a child himself or for the years he didn’t know the girl existed.
“Anything I do as an adult, I should be responsible for,” he said. “But as a teenager? I don’t think so.”.
Situations such as Olivas’ are rare, according to fathers-rights advocates. But cases in several states have garnered attention. Although there has been some public outcry over charging a crime victim with child support, the courts have consistently said states have every right to do so.
KANSAS, CALIFORNIA CASES.
The most well-known case was of a Kansas boy who, at age 13, impregnated his 17-year-old baby-sitter. Under Kansas law, a child under the age of 15 is legally unable to consent to sex. The Kansas Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that he was liable for child support.
California issued a similar state court ruling a few years later in the case of a 15-year-old boy who had sex with a 34-year-old neighbor. In that case, the woman had been convicted of statutory rape.
In both cases, it was the state social-services agency that pursued the case after the mother sought public assistance.
“The Kansas court determined that the rape was irrelevant and that the child support was not owed to the rapist but rather to the child,” said Mel Feit, director of the New York-based advocacy group the National Center for Men.
In Arizona, the Department of Economic Security oversees child–support enforcement. Its written policy is not to exempt situations like Olivas’ from child-support responsibilities, unless the parent seeking child support has been found guilty of sexual assault with a minor or sexual assault.
“We don’t see those cases very often, and we’re really glad for that,” said attorney Janet Sell, chief counsel with the Attorney General’s Office’s Child and Family Protection Division.
FOCUS ON THE CHILD.
But DES officials said the intent of the rule is to ensure that the child, who had no control over the situation, is cared for.
Feit said if the roles were reversed and the woman was the victim, the scenario would be unthinkable.
“The idea that a woman would have to send money to a man who raped her is absolutely off-the-charts ridiculous,” he said. “It wouldn’t be tolerated, and it shouldn’t be tolerated.”.
Feit said the basic legal premise of a rape is that the victim can’t be held responsible. And with statutory rape, even if the victim participates, he or she can’t be held responsible.
“We’re not going to hold him responsible for the sex act, so to then turn around and say we’re going to hold him responsible for the child that resulted from that act is off-the-charts ridiculous,” he said. “It makes no sense.”.
Arizona also has no exemption for children born to children, although the state cannot get a court order for child support against the non-custodial parent until that parent becomes an adult.
It also doesn’t matter to the state whether the non-custodial parent knows about the child or not. Child support is a separate legal issue from custody.
The state requires parents seeking public assistance under the state’s welfare programs to first pursue child support. The child-support payments then are used to help reimburse the state for assistance payments.
“They have to comply with us,” said Scott Lekan, DES child support operations administrator. “We’re trying to keep them off the cash assistance, and we’re trying to get back some of the cash assistance money. It benefits everybody at the end of the day.”.
The state has more routes than the courts to acquire money from a parent. It can garnishee wages up to 50 percent of disposable income. It can take a tax refund. It can put a lien on a home or a vehicle. It can suspend driver’s licenses or revoke passports. And it can seize money out of bank accounts.
“Our biggest source of income is from income-withholding orders to employers,” Lekan said.
Under Arizona’s child-support formula, non-custodial parents may keep their first $903 to cover their own living expenses. A child-support payment amount is then set based on the remaining money.
Olivas is trying to fight some of the child-support costs, but says he can’t afford a lawyer.
He also is trying to see his daughter.
“I lost my mom at a young age. I know what it’s like to only have one parent,” he said. “I can’t leave her out there. She deserves a dad.”.
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