"Keeping Up With the Joneses"

NBC Dateline, 26 January 1999, reported by Margaret Larson:

LINDA JONES WORKS in advertising and promotions in southern California, a loving wife and mother who spends her spare time with her husband Adrian and their son Logan. She takes him to dance class at the local community center, where she also volunteers her time.

She describes herself as stable — the last person you’d expect to be mixed up in the case of an abandoned child, but that’s exactly what happened. She didn’t know it, but she was trapped in a nightmare of frustration and confusion that would stretch out more than two years. It all began with a startling notice from authorities hundreds of miles away in San Francisco.

“I actually got something in the mail and I opened it up and it said something about me abandoning a baby and they’re looking for me,” Jones says. “So I just called them up and I said, ‘I think you have the wrong person’.”

Linda says she thought her phone call would take care of it. But a few months later, she says another notice arrived in the mail, again from an agency in San Francisco. It asked for “any new information on the absent parent” of the same baby.

“I called back and I go ‘I told you it’s not my baby,” says Jones. “And they said, ‘well can’t you write us a note and say you don’t know who the father is?’ I said no. I said I don’t know who the father is and I don’t know who the mother is.”

That was in May 1996, just the beginning of a case of mistaken identity that would get much worse. Linda says she has never lived in San Francisco and she has never had a child other than her son Logan.

Linda says she thought her two phone calls would set the record straight, that she’d be in the clear. But she was mistaken. The worst was still to come. Two years later, just last fall, Linda received yet another notice from the Family Service Bureau of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.

This time, incredibly, she was being sued by the District Attorney’s office for support of the baby in San Francisco, a child she says she’d never so much as seen. The lawsuit could result in a judgment against her and the D.A. could seize part of her earnings.

She says she was worried and made a third call to the agency, and that an investigator there asked her to send in a photograph.

“She said ‘we want to take your picture to the man we think is the father and ask him if he had relations with you,’” says Linda. “And I go, you’ve got to be kidding.”

Linda says she was angry. “I mean you’re not flashing my photo and saying, ‘Have you had sex with her? Have you had sex with her? What about you?’ That’s crazy.”

Linda says at this point she was getting scared. What if the authorities went ahead and took some of her wages to support a child she says wasn’t hers? She says her phone calls hadn’t done any good. So she contacted a friend, an entertainment attorney, not an expert in this field, but someone she hoped could help.

“I figured it would be a couple of phone calls, maybe write some letters, give them some evidence that they’ve got the wrong person,” says attorney Henry Root.

But after two months, 10 letters and as many calls, attorney Henry Root found out Linda was in even deeper trouble than he’d thought. It turned out she was being sued by the county of San Francisco for support of not one, but two children.

And there was more. In a separate case, the state was now involved. The California Department of Motor Vehicles had revoked her driver’s license for failure to pay more than $1,600 in traffic fines, again in San Francisco, a city where she says she’d never lived and never driven. She says she has never received one single traffic violation in that city.

“It’s not me,” says Linda.

Now she wasn’t just being sued for money, she was facing possible criminal charges, even jail time. There was a warrant out for her arrest because of the unpaid tickets, but she needed to drive to take her son to school and to get to work.

“I’ve been stressed out, nervous,” says Linda, “especially nervous driving, really nervous driving, because I don’t want my son to see me handcuffed and treated like a criminal.”

So she started carrying all her legal papers with her every time she got behind the wheel, to defend herself in case she was pulled over.

“Just so I don’t get arrested,” she says. She says she felt like a fugitive.

As she struggled to get car insurance and straighten out her driving record, she continued what she says was now a more than two-year effort to get clear of the child abandonment cases. She says she sent the District Attorney’s office copies of her birth certificate and driver’s license when she received last November’s notice.

A month later, with the cases still unresolved, she sent a copy of her Social Security card, a signed affidavit and a pregnancy test taken at a doctor’s office in late September 1997. It was negative, and yet the D.A.’s office maintained the same Linda Jones bore a child just three months later, on New Year’s day. And even after receiving that information, the agency was still asking Linda to take a test to prove she wasn’t the children’s mother.

“It’s none of their business,” she says. “My blood work is none of their business.”

“Dateline” called the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to ask about the Jones case. They said they would need time to research it.

“It’s not an easy task,” says John Shanley, spokesperson for the office. “We are responsible for about one-third of the children in the county. It is our job to go out and try to locate somebody on their behalf to collect funds on their behalf.”

But were they, in this case, looking for the right “somebody?” By their own records, they were looking for a Linda “L” Jones who abandoned children in San Francisco. But the one they found lived half a state away, near Los Angeles, and has in fact, for eight years and her middle initial is “A” not “L.”

Wouldn’t that be a tip off that this might not be the person you should be going after?

“You know, not a lot of things automatically jump out at you when you’re looking at 43,000 cases,” says Shanley.

There were other details as well, signs that Linda Ann Jones was not the woman they should be going after one. Linda “L” Jones’ maiden name, found on her birth certificate, is Moseley — the same last name of one of the abandoned children. But Shanley says that kind of fine print is easy to miss. The caseload is enormous for an agency that collects some $26 million a year for kids abandoned by one or both parents.

Still, we wondered how hard would it be to find the right Linda L. Jones.

A “Dateline” producer went to the San Francisco Police Department and found her address within 15 minutes. Police confirm she’d been in their system since 1986, and at her current address for four years. All of these records were available to the authorities looking for her.

The very next day after our check, “Dateline” found Linda L. Jones at the address on file with the police. She later told us she is the mother of those abandoned children. We also brought the case to the attention of investigators at the Department of Motor Vehicles. When we checked back with them a few days later, they’d found her too.

What did she say?

“She was quite candid,” says Roddy Rodriguez of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “We asked her about the ticket and she said ‘Yes, that’s my ticket.’”

He quickly traced the problem to California’s vast state computer database system. “Somebody decided to override what normally should’ve been done,” he says.

Somebody made a mistake?

“That would probably be a correct assumption,” Rodriguez says.

Finally an answer. Somewhere along the way, he says, someone made a computer error, merging the identities of Linda L. and Linda A. Jones in the state’s database system. It might have been an easy mistake to make: the two women have the same first and last names, the identical birthdate, were even born in the same county.

“They looked at the name and date of birth and just merged the record because the frequency of people having the same name and date of birth is so remote,” says Rodriguez.

Still, in the case of the two children in San Francisco, Linda A. Jones says she was trying to get someone to listen for more than two years. And “Dateline” had quickly located Linda L. Jones, as had the DMV. So why hadn’t the District Attorney’s office done the same thing in all that time? Why hadn’t they simply asked her if she was the mother of the children? It wasn’t hard to find Linda L. Jones.

“Well that’s one person making an inquiry for one child,” says John Shanley. “If that one person had to make an inquiry on behalf of maybe 3,000 children, it would take them longer to conduct all those inquiries.”

Did the agency drop the ball somewhere along the line? Or is it reasonable that something like this should take all of these months to clear up?

“I can understand how to people it may seem unreasonable,” says Shanley. “And I mean I am not going to claim the system is perfect.”

Shanley says that while it’s possible their records are wrong, his agency’s computer files indicate the first call from Linda Ann Jones came in last November. He apologized for what she’s been through and insisted mistakes like this are rare.

“When you have such a massive caseload,” says Shanley, “individuals who have similar names or certain birthdates may be inconvenienced.”

But to Linda Ann Jones, being sued for child support, losing her driver’s license and having a warrant issued for her arrest are more than an inconvenience. She says it’s evidence the state’s big computer systems sometimes offer no easy exit for the wrongly accused.

Could it happen to anybody?

“Well, I’m anybody,” says Linda. “So yes. So I just worry about what will happen to other people. How do you prove you’re innocent?

The two Linda Jones may have been fused in computer systems as far back as 1994. Just a few days after Dateline made calls to both the D.A.’s office and the DMV, Linda Ann Jones in southern California was cleared. She did not have to undergo any DNA tests. The D.A.’s office has now written her a letter of apology.


From: http://www.msnbc.com/news/234509.asp#BODY

99/04/26