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

However, the IDO is hardly a fail-safe collection method. For one thing NCPs quickly learn to work under the table, a practice more easily accomplished in temporary jobs, day labor, and trades and in large urban areas with significant gray-market economies. An individual worker may go to extreme lengths to evade an IDO, sometimes leaving a more lucrative job in favor of lesser-paying, under-the-table work. "Some parents know how to beat the system," says Senator Horne. "It's sort of like a fraternity. They've figured out how not to pay."

Banks was ordered several times to get a job; when he failed to do so, he was found in contempt of court. The DOR suspended his driver's license; the same fate befell some 30,000 others last year. The general master set payments ranging from $300 to $1600. Under threat of incarceration, Banks made the payments, though they were often late.

Once when Banks was found in contempt, the hearing officer inexplicably never set a purge. The result: On October 2, 2000, after four years of dodging the law and his parental responsibility, Banks walked free, with only another admonition to get a job. All the while his arrears continued to mount. In three years the DOR sent IDOs to eight different employers; none of these orders produced a dime.

Sean Gentile struggled to secure child support for her daughter, Rose. Now she's fighting to make it easier for other parents.
Joshua Prezant
Sean Gentile struggled to secure child support for her daughter, Rose. Now she's fighting to make it easier for other parents.

Surprisingly, in Banks' case, the one DOR method that did yield payment resulted from a bold move by Banks that backfired -- twice. The DOR is empowered to intercept IRS tax refunds, a tactic that proved successful on the two occasions when Banks attempted to claim his son as a dependent on his IRS tax return, even though he did not have custody and did not pay child support.

"They snatched that check so fast," Carey says with a laugh.

For the most part, however, she has seen little of the money Banks is ordered to pay. In five years he's amassed more than $19,000 in arrears. Meanwhile Banks engaged an attorney and successfully sued for visitation rights.

Though Carey understands that visitation and child support are legally separate issues, she, like many custodial parents, finds such bifurcation tough to accept. To her it feels as if poor mothering is criminalized while poor fathering receives tacit approval.

"What if I didn't take care of Joshua?" she wonders. "What could happen to me? They'd put me in jail."

Under the proposed legislation, Banks could face felony conviction, though Carey believes he'd first make a payment. "He's not gonna sit in jail. His family would get him out," she says. "If he knows he's going to go to jail, that's when he pays." So far the legislation is unclear about what amount of payment would forestall a felony conviction.

Carey has since married, and with her husband has another son, Lashon, who is five years old. Carey's husband would like to adopt Joshua, but Banks has refused to allow it. Furthermore she says Banks and his family have called her a traitor to her race for going to the DOR to settle the dispute, an outlook that suggests a deep-seated distrust of government.

"They said, "The white man is pimping you,'" Carey remembers. ""You're like a prostitute.'"

At this the women break into peals of laughter. "The white man?" Carey scoffs. "All colors work in that office. It's not the white man. It's your not being a man. I don't care what color you are," she says, "if you're not paying child support, you're not being a father to your son."

To think of it, Stanley gets particularly riled. "These men lay down with the women, get their pleasure, and where are they?" she cries, eyes wide, arms outstretched in exasperation. "Where are they?"

Her daughter is more pragmatic. "I just wish one day he'd go to work," she says. She is waiting for a date to be set for the latest contempt hearing and anticipates a better outcome because, at her request, a judge will preside over her case. When Stanley asks how she knew to do that, Carey goes to her desk, picks up a yellow business card, and hands it to her mother.

"I've got an activist," she says.

Sean Gentile works as a freelance video assistant, but as she likes to point out, she's an artist at heart. One of her creations is a child superhero named Teresa Serenity. With bobbed jet-black hair, Teresa Serenity looks a lot like a young Gentile, who herself resembles a young Anjelica Huston.

But Gentile is not about serenity. She talks loud and fast and fidgets impatiently when it's her turn to listen. At five feet, nine inches tall and usually wearing high heels, she often looks down on those around her.

In fact Gentile's Cleopatra eyeliner and penchant for reinventing herself bring to mind another superhero: Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. After all Gentile sees her struggle to reform the state's system of child-support enforcement as a battle of good versus evil.

In November 1999 Gentile, who is now 35 years old, sought child support for her newborn daughter, Rose. She was outraged by the slow, bureaucratic process and the "shocking, gross, inhumane" treatment she says she received at the hands of workers in the DOR's Broward Service Center.

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