Sunday, January 30, 2011

Judge orders state paternity requirements eased

"A federal judge has ordered state health officials to stop denying unmarried parents an easy way to designate a child's legal father if one or both parents lack a Social Security number.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled Thursday that there was enough evidence to show a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the policy could succeed, and she issued a preliminary injunction to stop the practice until the case is resolved.

The lawsuit was filed against the Indiana State Department of Health by a group of families whose immigration status does not allow them to get Social Security numbers, said Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which is representing the families.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of how paternity affidavits -- forms that unmarried parents can fill out to establish a child's legal father -- are issued.

Falk said the policy hurts legal residents as well as illegal immigrants, since people who are in the country legally, such as on certain types of visas, also cannot get Social Security numbers.

The state could appeal the injunction before the lawsuit moves forward, but Falk hopes the state will agree to change its policy permanently.
The Department of Health used to accept paternity affidavits even if one or both parents' Social Security numbers were missing. But since July 1, it has required both parents' Social Security numbers to validate the forms.
The lawsuit claims the change deprives foreign nationals' U.S.-born children, who are U.S. citizens, of the ability to obtain child support and other benefits of having a legal father.

Erin Kellam, who became state registrar in March, said she determined the change needed to be made based on her interpretation of a state law requiring Social Security numbers on the forms.

Kellam said she was unaware that a policy interpretation of a similar federal law had decided that forms without both parents' Social Security numbers could still be accepted.

She told Pratt that the state law requiring two Social Security numbers "seemed so clear" that she thought it wouldn't be subject to interpretation.

Pratt took issue Thursday with the state's claim that it needs parents' numbers to enforce child support. She called that argument "very hollow" because the state admitted it doesn't verify the Social Security numbers, so anyone could provide a false one.

In her ruling, Pratt noted that decisions in previous cases show children cannot be punished for their parents' immigration status.

She also said the state's intent in enacting a paternity affidavit law was to give people a way to establish paternity voluntarily without going through a tedious and costly court process, and that option should be open to everyone.

And, Pratt said, having a father's name and address gets the state a step closer to enforcing child support than refusing someone paternity if he doesn't have a Social Security number.

"Legitimizing children is very much in the public's interest," she said."

Indy Star, Jan. 28, 2011.

Follow Star reporter Carrie Ritchie on Twitter at CarrieRitchie. Call her at (317) 444-2751.

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