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

When Senator Horne introduces the bill, he lays out the reasons it's needed: 60 percent of cases have a court order; there is no way to extradite on a civil charge; noncustodial parents often duck the law for years, racking up huge arrearages and evading the system.

"I think we have a system that's nearly out of control today," he declares. "I believe it's akin to abandonment of children." But Sen. Kendrick Meek (D-Miami) expresses concern that jailing offenders would keep them from being able to earn money to pay the bill.

"I'm just going to be brutally honest with you," he says. "I don't think this is going to get you where you want to be."

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.

(Later, Sherelia Carey's family is surprised to hear of it. "You tell me Kendrick Meek said that?" cries Betty McIntyre, her eyebrows arched in disbelief. "I voted for him. I need to get a hold of him.")

When Gentile takes the podium, it is as if she never heard Meek's remarks. She doesn't address his point, perhaps because doing so would necessitate veering from the speech she's scribbled in a red Mead Memo notebook. "I am outraged because our child-support enforcement is a zero. And it's a zero because the chief judges and child-support enforcement officers don't care," she begins.

Her testimony teeters between pep-squad boosterism and virulent accusation. She points out that stealing a grocery cart is a felony, while failing to pay court-ordered child support is not even a misdemeanor. "We need to take action now," she exhorts the crowd.

Afterward the room buzzes softly with nervous laughter and murmurs. With a stern look on his face, Sen. Victor Crist (R-Tampa) responds: "Folks come here from great distances. This is a professional process. I want to go on record, and I need to be clear: One of them turned me off completely by her accusation that I don't care. I know every one of the people up there, and they all care.... Be mindful of that."

In the end the bill passes unanimously; it has since undergone a few minor changes. Some form of the bill is expected to be signed into law before the end of the session.

Outside the senate chamber, in the crush of suits spilling into the hallway, Gentile looks confused. Her next stop is the Department of Revenue, but she gets delayed. Waiting for the elevator, she holds court in front of the students who have come on a field trip. She gives them numbers to call to voice their support of the bill and to learn more about child-support enforcement. The students take her cards, stare at the yellow rectangles, and gather around with interest that suggests they've had firsthand experience with child support. The conversation is quickly shut down by a chaperone, who explains to Gentile that they aren't voters yet but schoolchildren here to observe.

Outside the senate building, Gentile's exuberance boils up, as if she has finally processed the experience. "I shamed 'em!" she cries, elated. "I looked in each one of their eyes, and I shamed 'em!" A reporter comes over to interview her, and she repeats her cry. "I shamed 'em! Did you see that?"

The man Gentile would meet later that day works in a formidable gray building surrounded by a green lawn, near the crest of a hill within walking distance of the capitol. At the controlled entrance to the building that houses the Department of Revenue, he appears, less formidable than his office, a slight man with hair going from gray to white and an intense gaze magnified by thick glasses.

Near the window in his large corner office sits a photo of a girl jumping a horse. It's his daughter, Vicky, who is 14 years old "going on 30."

In a white shirt, black slacks, and a thin black tie, Dave Bruns could be a civil servant or a math teacher. He sounds like the latter, his speech measured with the patient cadence of someone who is used to repeating things in different ways until he's understood.

He starts with a story problem. When his department took over child-support enforcement in 1994, it inherited a system riddled with inconsistencies and hamstrung by an ancient mainframe computer system. It was the product of a time when child-support enforcement was a social-service task. Caseworkers juggled 900 to 1200 cases each, and because they had to see each case through from beginning to end, they had to be experts in every aspect of child support. A study showed that caseworkers spent 51 minutes of each hour on the phone with parents rather than actually working on cases.

"It was clearly broken," Bruns says of the old system.

Welfare reform hadn't helped with record-keeping, either. Each time someone was enrolled in welfare, a child-support enforcement case was opened, too. But as people went on and off welfare, the system didn't always keep up. Some outdated cases never got deleted, while duplicate cases were filed. As a result there was no clear way to determine how many individual parents CSE was attempting to serve, a problem that still plagues the DOR today.

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