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Making the world a better place – One billboard at a time

By Gordon E. Finley
web posted November 27, 2006
So, what would drive second wife Shelly Barreras to spend half of her 2006 Thanksgiving Day perched atop a billboard 50 feet above the ground in Albuquerque, New Mexico?    
The facts are not in dispute.  Essentially, first wife Viola Trevino gave new meaning to paternity fraud when she created a "virtual daughter" based on a DNA sample from her ex-husband's adult daughter.  With the help of accomplices, she created a child that never existed but that came complete with a birth certificate, a Social Security card, a Medicare Card, and a judicial claim for child support that reached the sum of $20,000. 
Never mind that ex-husband Steve Barreras had a vasectomy a year prior to the alleged "birth" which left him with a zero sperm count.  Barreras made multiple attempts to set the record straight with the New Mexico Department of Human Services, without success.  With their "business as usual" attitude, the ever-willing Child Support Enforcement Division went after Barreras and collected and collected and collected.  Finally, it took court action forced by media exposure to get Governor Bill Richardson to demand an investigation into how his state agency not only collaborated in the fraud but resisted attempts to expose it.
The immediate problem leading to a Thanksgiving Day for Shelly Barreras atop an Albuquerque billboard is that Governor Bill Richardson's alleged pledge to return the fraudulently obtained child support funds never materialized. 
The larger and long-term problem, however, lies far from picturesque Albuquerque and is far more difficult to resolve.  The most critical parts of the long-term problem are two presumptions built into every state's child support system:  the mother always is a truthful victim whose basic needs ever are under funded while the father always lies, hides assets, and squanders money on fancy cars and loose women. 
Unfortunately, the general public, elected officials, and legislatures throughout the nation have bought into these fraudulent presumptions to such a degree that over the past four decades they have been increasing child support awards to mothers year by year.
What makes this entire process so tragic is that current empirical research clearly demonstrates that, when children are involved, divorce is almost always initiated by the mothers who are aware that they are almost certain to get custody of the children.  Also, post-divorce, the mothers generally are better off financially than the fathers when special tax benefits to custodial mothers and direct support of the children by divorced dads are factored in.  What is most critical is that the empirical research reality is the exact opposite of the false presumptions upon which family court judges and state child support enforcement agencies operate. 
So, what to do? 
First, the State of New Mexico clearly owes Shelly and Steve Barreras the money it fraudulently stole from them and should pay up promptly.  Second, Governor Bill Richardson, whom it is rumored is interested in higher office, should count neither on the vote of any man nor any woman willing to climb a 50 foot billboard nor any woman who may sympathize with her.  Third and most importantly, it is long past time to reform the child support formulas of every state with an eye to shifting them from models based on "income shares" to models based on the actual costs of rearing a child – with these costs distributed across the real expenses incurred by mothers and fathers when their children are in their care. 
We all owe Shelly Barreras a vote of thanks for drawing attention to this problem and for making the world a better place in which to live – one billboard at a time. ESR

Gordon E. Finley, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Florida International University in Miami. 

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