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

She first got in touch with the Palm Beach County chapter of ACES (Association for Children for Enforcement of Support), then struck out on her own, founding FAMILY (Fathers and Mothers Instituting Laws for the Young) from her Fort Lauderdale home.

At first she acted locally, taking the Broward DOR office to task with calls, letters, and visits. But Gentile didn't just stuff a suggestion box; she complained directly to the workers themselves and to their supervisor, Broward regional director Nancy Tango. In fact, Gentile proudly adds, she was so unrelenting in her efforts that she was barred from the office.

"The staff told me, "Look, do not call back this office. Don't come around. We'll call the cops.'" She lets out a raspy laugh.

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.

Tango would not comment for this story, but Dave Bruns says Gentile has intimidated the center's employees. "The staff there feels really beat up," he says. "She has been contentious, confrontational.... She has scared some of our employees."

Gentile is blasé about her detractors: "Nice-nice doesn't get you anywhere in this life."

In some ways she's right. Gentile now receives court-ordered child support for Rose, whose picture she held up throughout the support hearing. Despite this victory she's not about to back down. She wants the system changed yesterday and has a lot of ideas about how to do that. At least one has already been implemented.

"I asked them to put a procedural board on the wall," she says. They did that, she acknowledges, "but they didn't define the procedures."

The DOR's Bruns admits the effort was incomplete, but Gentile puts it another way: "They did it half-assed," she says, her Worcester, Massachusetts, accent now in full-blown, long-vowel mode, "and you can put half-assed."

Gentile also requested DOR post director Nancy Tango's picture, name, and contact information on the wall of the Broward office, much the way portraits of smiling supermarket managers are displayed inside their stores. Gentile's request was not honored, nor was her subsequent suggestion that they hang her picture instead.

But while employees at the Broward CSE office are tired of hearing from Gentile, she's found other means of self-expression. For one thing she's honed her pitch to the press.

"I don't want to talk about "deadbeat dads,'" she says, brightly introducing her cause. "That is so boring." (Given the objections raised by fathers' rights groups, it's also controversial.) Instead Gentile wants to talk about her ideas for new school curriculum and other programs that would encourage men not only to pay child support but to be fathers to their children. She thinks NCPs should get more incentives for paying child support, like tax incentives, or if that's not feasible, maybe discounted tickets to amusement parks like Boomers! or freebies like Blockbuster coupons.

"See, this is nouveau thinking," she says, winding up for a hard sell, "This is new."

Gentile, who last year changed her first name from Elaine, eventually got some press, including a few short Sun-Sentinel articles and a mention by Miami Herald columnist Rekha Basu. The Sun-Sentinel also published an angry letter Gentile wrote lambasting the DOR. Bruns penned a rebuttal, and the newspaper printed that, too.

Gentile photocopies her clippings and sends them to her growing mailing list, which includes elected officials such as Senator Horne, cosponsor of the felony child-support bill. A few days before he was scheduled to present it before the senate's criminal justice committee, Horne's office invited Gentile to testify before the committee. She accepted and the next day went to the airport and paid more than $400 in cash for a ticket to Tallahassee.

At 12 minutes to two o'clock, Gentile races into the senate office building at the state capitol. A day-tripper, she didn't bother with baggage or even a purse and is now left holding the translucent plastic garbage bag she "borrowed" from an airport restaurant. In it, she carries her jeans and FAMILY T-shirt, car keys, and a pink plastic hairbrush.

In the airport bathroom during a stopover in Tampa, Gentile had changed into a dark blazer and skirt with a pale pink knit top and bright fuchsia lipstick. "I'm going for a soft look," she had explained with a grimace. "It isn't me."

Now transformed and transported to an unfamiliar place, she looks lost, adrift in the throng of lobbyists, legislators, and the media. Men and women with briefcases and manila folders confer in clusters in the hallway around her. But Gentile doesn't flounder long. She spots Horne's secretary, Carol Jinks, who swoops over to Gentile and propels her through the crowd. Dressed in a proper cobalt blue skirt suit, her ash blond hair in beauty-shop curls, Jinks is an old-school politico.

Gentile's arrival completes the list of those set to testify on behalf of the bill. Jinks whisks Gentile around a corner in the hallway outside the wood-paneled hearing room, plants a hand on each of her shoulders and looks her squarely in the eye:

"NO male-bashing," she orders, her voice low amid the din.

Gentile protests the implication, but it's no use; the hearing is about to start. She finds a seat near the front, next to Matthew Munyon, executive director of the Florida Commission on Responsible Fatherhood, and smiles broadly. Behind them the middle rows of the small auditorium are filled with high-school students on a field trip. A young man in a suit and gold-framed glasses reads a paperback copy of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

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