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Child support system.

I was a child support lawyer for the State of Florida. One day, in open court, I saw a man rip up and eat his paycheck to avoid supporting his child. He deserved to be sent to jail and hammered with every enforcement mechanism in the state's arsenal. No one would disagree.

But most men dealing with the child support system are not the paycheck eater. They are caring parents who are often stuck in a run of bad luck. Their temporary financial set backs, whether from illness, injury, or unemployment, are met with the same heavy hand that was once reserved (and today, should only be used) for the paycheck eater. The arm guiding that heavy hand is the Florida Department of Revenue, the state's tax enforcer, which is represented by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office. Boiled down to an easy analogy, the State Attorney's Office represents Florida's IRS.

The Department of Revenue spends $40 million per year on a matrix of computer systems and databases to enforce and impose child support obligations. But it is not concerned with visitation, the positive functioning of families, or the impact on children whose fathers are mechanically labeled deadbeats. For a payment delinquency as short as two weeks, a computer program will suspend a father's driver's license, vehicle registration, occupational license, and passport; freeze his bank account; and destroy his credit, all without a hearing. Total financial chaos ensues without first getting an opportunity to be heard.

Faced with this heavy hand, many fathers go underground, with cash work, few traceable assets, and a transient, impermanent life. This serves no one, certainly not children. But in Miami-Dade County, there is a larger injustice to children.

When a father is ensnared by the Miami-Dade County child support enforcement system, it is nearly impossible to have his visitation and his access to his children enforced. Judges in the child support division have no jurisdiction to hear anything other than child support--the division is only tasked with calculating and collecting money. To fight for visitation and access, a father must complete a complicated legal maneuver to transfer his case out of the child support division to the main family division. This is expensive with a lawyer, incomprehensible without one, and results in an extremely long wait either way.

This is inconsistent with the actions of our Florida lawmakers when they revised our laws in 2008, making a father's right to see his children an absolute. It saw fathers as capable and necessary co-parents, and eliminated the term "custody" from our law books. The Legislature replaced "custody" with "timesharing-shared parental responsibility," and reframed the basis of child support calculation to consider the number of annual overnight stays with each parent.

The mental health field wholeheartedly agrees that a child's time with his or her father is crucial to the child's long-term mental health and development. But the focus on money, rather than the holistic needs of children and their broken families, is built into the county's child support enforcement machine, despite the good people burdened with following its mandates.

That focus, together with the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later computer programs, and the segregation of child support from the main family division, results in the caring but unfortunate co-parent being treated like a paycheck eater, and a prioritization of collections over the consequences.

Chantle L. Suttle

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Title Annotation:Letters
Author:Suttle, Chantle L.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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