The Deadbeat Goes On

The attorney wears a simple blouse, and her straight brown hair is as no-nonsense as her demeanor. She rests her head in her hands and, in a monotone, cross-examines a man as if reading from a list.

He looks fortysomething and vaguely collegiate in a sagging tweed jacket and argyle socks. A substitute teacher for the Broward County School District, he earns $10.67 an hour, but he can't count on those wages -- nor can his ex-wife count on him making the court-ordered child-support payments for the child who, during the course of this contempt hearing, is never mentioned by name. He has no pension plans, IRA accounts, or stocks. He has no assets, he says, save a 1988 Honda Prelude for which he paid $500 in cash. He lives with his mother. He has no coin collections, no tools, no firearms. He has nothing he can liquidate and doesn't expect an IRS tax refund. The attorney's questions are comprehensive, but when they garner a grand total of zero, she doesn't seem surprised.

If the setting were a courtroom, this might be a scene from a courtroom drama. Instead it's a dim and dispiriting hearing room on the fifth floor of the Broward County Courthouse. Here, down a crowded corridor painted a sickly shade of yellow, everyday tragedies play out predictably, like last week and the week before, another rerun in a season of reruns. The man is one of many only-the-clothes-on-my-back noncustodial parents (NCPs) summoned to contempt hearings because they fail to pay court-ordered child support.

Inside the hearing room, General Master Phillip Schlissel sits at the head of a long, rectangular table. He wears a tie and blue button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his forearms. Together with a court-appointed attorney and a cast of mothers and, less frequently, fathers, Schlissel attempts to impose financial order upon social, cultural, and emotional chaos. In this case Schlissel directs the NCP to cough up whatever cash he can. The man takes his wallet from his back pocket and hands a few worn bills across a wood-grained table to a matronly, middle-aged woman with a tidy hairdo and sensible shoes. He is her ex-husband, the father of her child, but her face registers nothing, no expression of familiarity. When she primly collects the cash and flattens the bills, she doesn't look him in the eye. A lawyer notes the denominations and registers the amount: $27.

The next case is similar, but the noncustodial parent is much younger and crumples in the hard chair with a scornful scowl. He wears baggy jeans, an ample sweater, and Nike Air sneakers. He isn't sure how long it's been since his last payment. "It's been a while," he mumbles.

In fact it's been so long that a judge has issued a bodily writ of attachment -- a civil warrant for his arrest. He didn't know about the writ, he says, but when the handcuffs come out, nobody looks surprised. Only paying the purge order can release him. Wrists joined in front of him, the man bows his head. He is arrested and, with a judge's approval, will be taken to jail.

Schlissel's goal is to discern why and how the noncustodial parents who come before him have failed to pay child support for the umpteenth time and what, if anything, they can pay. Though child-support enforcement hearings are held only a few days a week, each day is packed. In a typical week, 250 cases are slated to be heard -- although some are canceled because participants don't show up. Schlissel is scheduled to hear 25 cases in the morning and 25 in the afternoon, so he has to move through them quickly.

"We're overloaded," he says.

Nonpaying parents may be hardened, but they're still human, and as a day in Broward County Court's child-support enforcement hearings attests, they sometimes fork over at least some cash if you threaten to jail them.

This is the reasoning behind Florida Senate Bill 400, which would make failure to pay court-ordered child support in excess of $5000 a felony, provided the noncustodial parent involved can pay. Massachusetts and Wisconsin have similar laws, and other states are considering them. The bill addresses a little-known Catch-22. According to Florida statutes, failure to support your children is not a crime unless a court order is in place. And if a court order exists, as in the hearings described here, failure to pay constitutes a misdemeanor under existing law and can carry a sentence of as long as six months in jail -- a penalty that has been used only once, according to DOR spokesman Dave Bruns.

As it stands parents may go for years without paying child support, and the odds are pretty good that nothing will happen to them. SB 400 and its counterpart in the house, HB 349, would be last resorts in the worst-case scenarios, but they would do nothing to expedite most of the roughly 380,000 slow, costly, and often fruitless child-support collection cases handled each year, nor would they do much to help track down Florida's worst child-support evaders -- 20,579 of whom are in Broward County -- who dodge and weave and disappear, sometimes for years, sometimes forever.

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Amy Roe