Viola Trevino is a walking-talking explanation of why the family court and child welfare systems across North America are widely accused of being part of the problem, not part of the solution, in resolving custody issues and protecting children. The Trevino case spun out in New Mexico, but there is nothing unique about the laws or procedures of that state.
Trevino’s fraud began in 1999 when she and her former husband Steve Barreras divorced. Trevino claimed she had given birth to a child after the divorce and sued Barreras for child support, claiming he was the father. This fraud dissolved in 2004, when it was finally discovered that there was no such child. But Barreras, who works as a corrections officer in law enforcement, was forced to spend the ensuing years trying to make the New Mexico courts and child welfare service even look at evidence that the child for whom he was paying support did not exist. More than $20,000 in payments later, a judge finally did the obvious. Trevino was ordered to produce the disputed child, then supposedly 5-years-old. On her way to the court appearance, Trevino snatched a 2-year-old off the street to pass off as her own daughter; the ruse collapsed when the infant’s distraught grandmother trailed Trevino into the courtroom. With such high drama, the media took notice…and politicians followed suit. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called for a full accounting.
At issue: how did several government agencies act as unwitting partners in a sustained and outright fraud? Why did they resist correcting the error?
New Mexico’s official response to the accounting was remarkable. In April 2005, it became state policy for child welfare workers to sign affidavits saying they had actually seen the children with whom they work. This is like asking public school teachers to sign affidavits saying they have met their students. Or doctors averring they have seen the patients for whom they submit bills. Such affidavits are an admission of a system’s failure, not a guarantee of its diligence. They are an admission that families are being processed as paperwork, not as people.
Meanwhile, as of Oct. 5, Trevino is finally in prison…not for kidnapping or any other charge related to bilking Barreras. She was sentenced to 16 months for filing a false federal income tax return in which she claimed exemptions and credits for the imaginary child. A court has also ordered Trevino to reimburse Barreras for more than $26,000 in false child support and other costs he paid. When a case is so egregious, it is tempting to view it as “the exception” and not an indication of endemic problems. A litmus test of whether a case indicates a problem is the ease with which you can correct an obvious error. A system that works rectifies errors; a system that doesn’t perpetuates them.
How did the New Mexico system address errors in the Trevino case? On June 14, 1999, the two parties filed a divorce agreement by which Barreras paid $300 per month in spousal support. Their two children were adults and no child support was ordered. Somehow the dollar amount on the court document was altered to $800. On Aug. 26, Judge Deborah Davis-Walker reviewed the alteration but did not act on accusations that Trevino had altered the document; she merely reinstated the $300 amount. (Trevino had a prior conviction on three counts of forgery in the same court district: case D-202-CR-7932664.)
On Dec. 3, Trevino told the court she had given birth to Barreras’ daughter in early September and requested child support. Among the facts Barreras tried but failed to admit into evidence was Trevino’s tubal ligation in 1978 and Barreras’ vasectomy in 1998. Instead, Judge Davis-Walker ordered a paternity test. In January 2000, the Mobile Blood Services compared a DNA sample of Barreras with one from the alleged child; the test indicated he was the father. When Barreras received a bill for the test, it stated “balance due on account of Eve Barreras” — the name of his adult daughter — he hired a private detective. As a matter of prudence, he also paid the court-ordered child support. In phone calls and letters, he urged New Mexico’s child support agency to verify his daughter’s physical existence. A child enforcement worker replied, “your daughter does exist, as I am sure you already knew.”
Eventually, it was discovered that the DNA test — as well as a subsequent one — was performed by a friend of the adult daughter who apparently skewed results by providing a sample of her own DNA. Meanwhile, Trevino forged documents to produce a Social Security number, a Medicare card, birth and baptismal certificates for the non-existent child. The web of lies spun for years because several agencies — the family court, child services, Medicare, welfare — did not ask the obvious. They only had to listen once to Barreras’ evidence-backed plea: check for a physical child. Without Barreras’ incredible persistence and the luck of media attention, Trevino may well be collecting child support today.
Paper can be processed neatly; people cannot. Any system that treats people like paperwork is part of the problem. And signing yet another piece of paper — an affidavit that says an agent has seen a flesh-and-blood human — does not solve the problem. It is just another piece of paper. For those who find the Trevino case alarming, consider this. What of the cases who never receive the light of public scrutiny and, so, never become nothing more than paperwork? Who checks if they have been incorrectly folded, spindled or bent?
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, “Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century” (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.