The Deadbeat Goes On

The state legislature should soon pass a bill criminalizing failure to pay child support, but those who live within the system say this reform doesn't go nearly far enough

The bill will have little effect on a pernicious problem: intermittent payees who pay only as much as will keep them out of jail. It might not help nine-year-old Joshua Banks, who is owed more than $19,000 in child support and going to need braces soon.

And it won't address what Broward County activist Sean Gentile says is a system that frustrates and humiliates the very people it was meant to help. The new bill is no panacea; bound together with child-support enforcement are complex questions about the economy, the family, law enforcement, and what it means to be a dad.

Still, proponents contend the message the bill sends to nonpaying parents is as important as its substance.

Sherelia Carey hopes her next court date will produce some of the child support owed to her son, Joshua. His father is more than $19,000 in arrears.
Joshua Prezant
Sherelia Carey hopes her next court date will produce some of the child support owed to her son, Joshua. His father is more than $19,000 in arrears.
Gentile sometimes shows up at the Broward County Courthouse to monitor child-support enforcement hearings
Joshua Prezant
Gentile sometimes shows up at the Broward County Courthouse to monitor child-support enforcement hearings

"We've got to do something," reasons Florida Sen. Jim Horne (R-Orange Park), who cosponsored the bill with Sen. Walter G. "Skip" Campbell (D-Tamarac). And as any custodial parent can tell you, when it comes to child support, something is better than nothing.

Sherelia Carey looks younger than her 27 years, but she has the quick, purposeful stride of a woman who has spent years in a hurry. Businesslike at first, by the time she has made her way through the schoolyard and up the wood-railed ramp to portable 82, she reveals a subtle pride. She went to this school, she notes, like her mother before her, and now her son, Joshua. "Half of my family goes to school here," says Carey. Opening the door, she glances over her shoulder and allows a smile. "So it's a tradition," she decides.

Portable 82 is Carey's classroom, and she has decorated it with images of black leaders and bright paper cutouts demonstrating the arithmetic she teaches. The students are gone today (it's a teacher's workshop day), and in their place sit Carey's mother, Cynthia Stanley, and her aunt, Betty McIntyre, who also work at the school as teacher's aides. Huddled over the child-size tables, McIntyre and Stanley eat sheet cake off Styrofoam plates from a bridal shower just held for Joshua's teacher.

"I thank God for them," Carey says of her mother and aunt, "or I wouldn't be able to make it."

When she found out she was pregnant, Carey was 18 years old and had already broken up with her boyfriend, Tony Banks. She decided to raise her son herself, with the help of her family. Carey says she didn't collect child support, or any form of support, from Banks; it's a point of pride for her that she has never collected public assistance, either, relying instead on her tightly knit, matriarchal family. Carey's grandmother and mother took care of Joshua while she worked as a teacher's aide and attended night classes at Nova Southeastern University.

Carey kept up this grueling schedule throughout school, eventually earning a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education in 2000. But in late 1995, the curriculum required her to complete an unpaid teaching internship. Joshua, who was five years old by then, was headed to kindergarten and needed back-to-school clothes. Anticipating the lost wages and added expenses, Carey knew she wouldn't be able to make ends meet: "I needed help."

She smoothes her blue Bethune Elementary T-shirt. Her fingers are graceful; her nails are painted gold to match the lettering on her shirt. Joshua, now nine years old, is going to need braces soon. When she recounts the conversation with Banks that started a five-year struggle, she lets out a world-weary sigh. "I said, "I'm not working right now; could you just get him some T-shirts and socks?'"

When Banks refused Carey reluctantly plunked down a $25 filing fee and opened a child-support enforcement case with the Department of Revenue. The state's version of the Internal Revenue Service, the DOR took over enforcement of child-support cases in July 1994 from what was then known as the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, as that department's agencies were dispersed amid welfare reform. The changeover marked a shift in the philosophy of child-support enforcement: A task once seen as a social service is now simply a matter of collection. "We process remittances," says the DOR's Bruns.

In April 1996 the child-enforcement division of the Broward County courts granted an order that requires Banks to pay $238 per month in child support. Though Carey had never requested it, the case also established back payment due; a court can demand retroactive arrears for up to two years prior to the date support was established. (Despite repeated attempts to determine his whereabouts, Banks could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Although Banks never disputed paternity, a factor which can slow a case considerably, the court order didn't prompt Banks to pay anything. The ensuing contempt hearing in September 1996 kicked off half a decade of arrest warrants, driver's license suspensions, and in the few instances the DOR was able to verify Banks' employment, income deduction orders (IDOs).

Such orders are the most effective of the DOR's arsenal of collection methods. The IDO requires an employer to deduct child-support payments directly from the employee's check. Once an employer confirms the parent's employment, the DOR sends notice to garnish a portion of the wages. In 1998 a new-hire registry was set up to identify noncustodial parents with open cases at the start of employment. Despite the fact that some employees quit their jobs when they find this out, the method accounts for 58 percent of all paying cases in the system. Further, between the years 1999 and 2000, the amount of money collected through IDOs has increased by 21 percent.

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