Florida’s child support system is a mess. Time for an upgrade

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This article represents the opinion of the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.

Florida’s child support system is broken. The evidence is overwhelming, but one figure reveals the extent of the damage: uncollected payments exceed $6.7 billion. This amount of money could fund free diapers for every child under 3 in Florida and paying four years of tuition for every undergraduate student currently attending the University of Florida — with nearly $4 billion remaining. The mountain of uncollected payments stems from an administrative maze that favors lawyers over families and automation over justice, and leaves too many parents frustrated and financially crippled. The system should help children. Too often this is not the case.

Florida failed to get 38% of parents to pay on time, worse than 35 other states, according to an alarming article by Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton. That’s more than one in three children who have had to wait for some or all of the money to help raise them – to help them survive, if not thrive. Errors, missing information and legal issues have delayed payments in Florida more than anywhere else in the country. Let it sink in. The goal is to get the money to parents raising children, but Florida has instead set a new standard for dysfunction.

The financial quagmire has concrete consequences. The mothers risk expulsion. Fathers choose between doctor visits and mortgage payments. Some families end up on public assistance, forcing taxpayers to subsidize state failures. Others take on second or third jobs, which prevents them from spending time with their children. They pay lawyers, private investigators and bailiffs in the hope of collecting some of the money, often to no avail. A mother highlighted in the Times article contacted the Florida Department of Revenue 123 times, with 87 different employees handling her case a total of 287 times. She also attended 36 hearings. Despite her best efforts – and all the bureaucracy – she still owes $97,000. In 2020, at least 392,000 children whose parents were supposed to receive financial support from another parent did not. It’s an average town of kids who deserve better.

There is no simple solution, but a good first step would be for the state to recognize that the system is failing many families. After that, several ideas are worth considering. Florida fared worse than 44 other states when it came to implementing family support, The Times found. In many cases, child support payments have not been established because parents have fought over custody issues, which can last for months or even years. The state must ensure judges release child support orders as soon as possible, whether that means adding more judges or streamlining the current process. Additionally, parents who owe money should not be able to make nominal payments – as little as $5 – to help delay their case. The system also imposes payments on some parents that they may not be able to afford, including some who are responsible for more than 50% of their income.

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Florida’s system relies heavily on automation, which works well in the easier cases where parents pay on time and avoid disagreements. But algorithms and computer research are not enough for the most complex disputes. The state should hire more investigators to weed out non-paying parents.

Some states take a more holistic approach to ensuring parents are in a better position to pay child support. Texas often pairs parents with employment counselors. The Georgian Court Circuits have a Parental Liability Court that includes literacy and drug abuse training. Florida, unfortunately, acts more like a simple collection agency, leaving many parents to fend for themselves. The $6.7 billion in unpaid child support is proof of that.

Florida courts and the Department of Revenue, which enforce child support, need to do a better job of assessing the incomes and assets of some of the delinquent payors and then stepping up enforcement. It’s a delicate balance. Suspending a driver’s license or professional license makes it harder for someone to earn a living and pay child support. The same goes for throwing them in jail. But currently, many parents have little incentive to make payments. Some know that they and their lawyers can cheat the system. Do you want proof ? At least 12 people in Florida owe over a million dollars. It doesn’t happen without people knowing they can get away with it.

Heads of state make a big deal out of caring for children. But when it comes to the child support system, the talks haven’t turned into action. It is high time for that to change.

Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and President Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinionated news.

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