“I spent almost 6 years in a field unit collecting and enforcing child support. There was not one occasion in six years where I felt the non-custodial parent was treated with respect, let alone, fairness.”–F & F Member Melissa Puntenney, former employee of the Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division in Texas
We’ve often criticized Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s notoriously abusive enforcement apparatus—to learn more, see our Houston Chronicle column When Beating up on ‘Deadbeat Dads’ is Unfair (1/7/07).
Recently, however, Abbott picked the wrong target—longtime F & F supporter Melissa Puntenney, a former employee of the Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division in Texas. When she first contacted Fathers and Families in 2006, she explained:
I spent almost 6 years in a field unit collecting and enforcing child support. There was not one occasion in six years where I felt the non-custodial parent (95% of the time, the father) was treated with respect, let alone, fairness. That is primarily the reason I resigned because I could no longer maintain my integrity and destroy people’s lives, relationships with each other and mainly, their children.
Once Melissa told us of a Texas case where Abbott’s office got a default judgment against a 16-year-old boy and declared him the father of children who were almost as old as he is!
Earlier this year, Melissa told us that Abbott’s office now had her foster son Keddrick Clemons in its sights. She wrote:
My foster son hooked up with a woman four years ago and apparently produced a child (or so she says)…He only saw her 3-4 times and then he never saw her again…All of a sudden, he gets served with papers—a “Petition to enter non-agreed child support order.” He was never notified to appear at anything before he was defaulted.
Now they stuck him with three years of back child support and medical support and are garnishing his wages. He has to appear in court on Thursday where they may put him in jail for six months.
The mother is refusing a DNA test. This kid makes $8.00 an hour and has custody of his daughter. Do you have any suggestions? He’s really hurting right now. The kid could be his, but also might not be his, and now he has lost his chance for even a DNA test, even if I agree to pay for it. He cannot possibly afford an attorney. Any ideas?
Puntenney then went to work in defense of Clemons, and won a rare and stunning victory. We salute Melissa—Fathers and Families Board Member Robert Franklin, Esq. has the full story below.
Together with you in the love of our children,
Glenn Sacks, MA
National Executive Director,
Fathers and Families
‘We Won!’ TX AG’s Office Apologizes for Wrongful Child Support Order
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office tried to railroad Keddrick Clemons; now it’s tied to the tracks.
Clemons’s foster mother, Melissa Puntenney emailed me the good news. “We won!” Did they ever.
Puntenney’s story throws back the curtain from the inner workings of the Child Support Division of the Office of the Attorney General of the nation’s second largest state. And it’s not a pretty picture.
Back on March 31, 2010, the AG’s Office held what’s called a Child Support Review Conference in Abilene, Texas to establish paternity for a little boy, Brody Anderson, who was then three years old. His mother, Courtney Anderson had identified Keddrick Clemons as the father. She’d identified two other men previously, but in both cases DNA tests proved them not to be the father.
So she went to plan C, which was Keddrick Clemons, who was 29 at the time. That would all have been OK, except Greg Abbott’s office neglected to let Clemons know about the review conference. The first thing he knew about it, Courtney Anderson texted him wondering why he hadn’t shown up.
Clemons called Greg Abbott’s office to demand a DNA test. He faxed them three times requesting the same thing. They set a court hearing for July, and when Clemons called the AG’s Office, he was told he didn’t have to be there. That wasn’t true. At the hearing, the judge issued an order establishing him as the boy’s father and garnishing his wages to the tune of 50%.
The AG’s attorneys didn’t mention his multiple requests for DNA testing. In short, they got the judge to issue a default judgment against Clemons because he wasn’t in court. They also didn’t send him a copy of the judge’s order.
To recap, in the space of less than four months, Greg Abbott’s office had:
- Failed to inform Clemons of the review conference,
- Falsely told him he didn’t need to attend the July hearing
- Failed to tell the judge why Clemons wasn’t at the hearing
- Failed to tell the judge about his requests for DNA testing
- Taken a fraudulent default judgment against Clemons
- Failed to deliver a copy of the order to him.
I’d call that either world-class incompetence or something else – run-of-the-mill deception.
Whatever the case, the Texas Attorney General’s Office started garnishing his wages at the rate of 50% and intercepted his tax refund check from the Internal Revenue Service. Keddrick Clemons was an $8-an-hour computer repair guy.
At that point, Clemons picked up the phone and called his former foster mother, Melissa Puntenney, who had worked in the child support enforcement division of the Texas AG’s Office from 1998 – 2004. It turns out she knew a thing or two about how to get Greg Abbott’s attention.
Puntenney quickly figured out that the AG’s Office was lying because they lied to her. They told her they’d given Clemons notice of the first hearing, but when she asked for the letter proving that, they couldn’t produce it. They told her he’d never requested a DNA test, but she had the confirmation of their receipt of the faxes he’d sent.
Eventually she got them to reschedule a court hearing on the issue of whether to do genetic testing. When the two arrived at court, the lawyers for Greg Abbott redoubled their previous efforts at obfuscation and misrepresentation. Puntenney explains:
When we got to court, they ushered him into this little room and told him that “it was over.” The Judge had not granted him a DNA test and she wouldn’t. The AG’s office could not request a DNA and the mother had denied even a private one. The only two options he had were to pay child support for the next 14 years, or terminate his parental rights.
He came out of that room absolutely horrified. He didn’t know what to do and so I told him if they will not give you a DNA test and if the Court won’t and if the mother won’t, then you have no choice. Although you have no rights to terminate, it’s basically your only option.
The mother had hired an attorney to do the paperwork, so we went to the attorney’s office and he signed it. He was devastated, but he felt he had no other choice.
After getting back to Austin, I called the AG’s office to find out what they intended to do with his IRS refund and when were they going to stop garnishing his wages, and the poor soul on the phone made the mistake of telling me that the Judge had ordered a DNA test, which had been ignored.
So the lawyers added lying about the judge’s order to their previous malfeasance. They then used that to get the man to terminate his parental rights.
The one reason this turned out alright is the inadvertence of a functionary at the AG’s Office who wasn’t in on the lie.
Armed with that, Puntenney started climbing the bureaucratic ladder, calling ever higher-placed individuals and threatening to go to the press. Soon enough, the AG’s Office agreed to file a request for an Equitable Bill of Review.
Now, in Texas, an Equitable Bill of Review is the way a party can attack a judgment when the time for appeal has passed as it had in the Clemons case. The kicker about an Equitable Bill of Review is that it can only be granted if the judgment was based on fraud or material mistake of fact.
I can only say that it’s rare indeed that parties attack a judgment favorable to them due to their own fraud. It must be a first, but that’s exactly what Greg Abbott’s office did in Keddrick Clemons’s case. Puntenney says they “fell on their sword,” which is about right.
The lawyers came into court figuratively bowing and issuing mea culpas right and left. The judge was none too pleased with their performance. She actually asked Clemons what sort of sanctions he’d like her to issue against the AG’s Office, to which he replied that he just wanted a DNA test and an apology.
He got both, as well as a refund of the money they’d been holding pending the outcome of the test.
The test turned up negative; Keddrick Clemons is not the father of Brody Anderson.