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

"You could tell how many cases were on the system but not how many people," he explains.

In addition the involuntary nature of many CSE cases made them particularly hard to resolve. In public-assistance cases, the government had an interest in collecting support, but since the money would not be returned to custodial parents, most of them had little interest in helping the process.

For one thing, a custodial parent may have forged an informal agreement with the noncustodial parent -- say, a couple packs of Pampers or a $20 bill a month -- and would likely lose that if the government came to collect. CSE spends roughly a dollar to administer the program for every $3.50 it collects. The process has another price: Such government intervention can be seen as a betrayal of trust between custodial and noncustodial parents, considered so intrusive that it serves to kill any equanimity that may remain. In general, once a CSE case is opened, the door on a relationship is closed.

"The system does what it can to drive these people apart," Bruns laments.

If a couple is legally married, the State of Florida presumes the husband is the father. If a couple is not married, as is the case in 46 percent of all CSE cases, paternity must be established. In order to improve collection efforts among unwed parents, the DOR implemented affidavits available at the hospital that can be signed by the man who claims to be father. Once signed, the document establishes legal paternity, is virtually irrevocable, and is recognized in court. In many instances the alleged father is not present at the time of birth and subsequently refuses to acknowledge paternity. As a result, the DOR is one of the state's largest consumers of genetic testing, with more than 33,000 tests conducted each year on 11,000 test subjects.

If a woman says she is not sure of the father's identity, the DOR turns to a cardboard wheel. Bruns picks one up off his bookshelf and demonstrates how it rotates to establish the likely date of conception. Spinning the wheel pinpoints likely days of conception, and the parent is asked to name partners within that time period. When and if those partners are located, each can be court-ordered to submit to a DNA test, the positive result of which is considered proof of paternity in any U.S. court.

Once paternity is established, the noncustodial parent is interviewed to determine his or her finances. If an interview cannot be conducted and there's no reason to believe the NCP is unable to work, it is assumed he or she makes minimum wage. A packet providing such documentation is prepared for attorneys working under contract with the DOR. They file the court action with the corresponding clerk of courts, and the case passes from the DOR's jurisdiction to the courts.

Then a hearing date is set, usually in about two months' time. The hearing is held by a judge or hearing officer in family court. A final order from the hearing may take as long as two weeks to be filed.

Once cases clear that hurdle, they may still be a long way from collection, as Sherelia Carey and thousands of other parents know all too well. (They are mostly women -- in 96 percent of CSE cases, the custodial parent is a woman. "There's this perception that dads are becoming custodial parents more frequently," says Bruns. "We don't see statistics to back that up in Florida.") The DOR can set up payroll deductions and intercept IRS tax returns, lottery winnings, and workers' compensation and unemployment benefits. It can also put liens on assets; those on vehicles are particularly effective.

Furthermore, as a result of a recent law, the DOR has a new tool. With the help of participating banks, asset enforcement allows the agency to freeze and seize financial accounts. About $5 million has been seized since January 1999.

While he notes that the DOR's 58 percent collection rate is well above the national average of 26 percent, he concedes, "That's not good enough. We could be doing a lot better."

The DOR's motto is "More money to more children more quickly." Still its efforts are hindered, Bruns notes, by the fact that two-thirds of nonpaying noncustodial parents are not able to pay. Most of the so-called "deadbeat" dads, he says, are "not deadbeat, they're dead broke."

In that case SB 400 would have a limited effect.

"We don't think [the felony bill] would be used that much but we think it'd be an effective deterrent," says Bruns.

Indeed, at its core the child-support dilemma is fraught with socioeconomic issues more complicated than any collection method can address. The DOR's employees may be gaining ground, but if they're fighting alone, it's a losing battle.

"It's every decent person's responsibility to support their child," Bruns says. "That's the fundamental bottom line."

He's talking about fatherhood now, and his otherwise flat Southern drawl quivers with righteous indignation. "The problem," he says, venturing vaguely into the vicinity of blame, "is some people are irresponsible. And it is not within the power of government to make irresponsible people be responsible."

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