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Thousands of jobless in Tampa Bay seek relief from child support payments

Mark Evans, playing with his daughters Mackenzie, 2, and Angelina, 5, right, fell behind on his child support payments for 
a son and daughter who live in Ohio after he was laid off in August. Things are looking up though. He recently landed a job.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Mark Evans, playing with his daughters Mackenzie, 2, and Angelina, 5, right, fell behind on his child support payments for a son and daughter who live in Ohio after he was laid off in August. Things are looking up though. He recently landed a job.

As a call center manager, Mark Evans was making $37,500 a year, enough to pay his bills and $650 per month in child support for two kids in Ohio.

Then he got laid off.

Suddenly, after child support deductions, Evans was taking home $872 a month in unemployment checks. That paid for groceries, electricity and rent for a small St. Petersburg apartment for Evans, his fiancee and their two children.

"We're fighting as hard as we can just to go backward," said Evans, 32.

With the state jobless rate in double digits, scores of Tampa Bay parents are finding themselves unable to meet court-ordered child support obligations, sometimes with tragic complications.

Robert Laird, the Lakeland man who shot his wife and left her body in the trunk of a car atop the Sunshine Skyway before jumping to his death, was nearly $18,000 behind in his child support and days away from a court hearing about it.

While the reasons for that tragedy may never be fully known, it is clear that the number of Tampa Bay residents seeking relief from child support orders has increased dramatically.

The main reason?

"By and large, it's layoffs," said Mark Chancey, a child support hearing officer in Pinellas County.

Thousands of divorced parents in the Tampa Bay area support children who don't live with them by providing regular payments based on their income. Generally, a CEO pays more than a laborer.

But these days, chief executives and laborers are both losing their jobs. In many cases, the court-ordered payments that used to be deducted from paychecks suddenly become an impossible burden.

"I think the downturn in the economy has taken an already extremely stressful situation and added additional stress," said Stann Givens, a Tampa divorce lawyer.

If parents lose their jobs, they can go to court and ask to pay less child support. Many are doing just that.

Figures from the state Department of Revenue show the number of referrals for child support modifications ­— mostly people asking to pay less — more than doubled in the Tampa Bay area from fiscal year 2005 through fiscal 2008.

In Pinellas County, the number tripled from 406 to 1,235. Hillsborough County saw a sharp increase from 697 to 1,039. In Pasco County, the number increased fivefold, from 177 to 899. In Hernando County, it was 362 to 510.

Figures are still being compiled for fiscal 2009, but so far the numbers remain high.

State numbers also show that the amount of child support collected and distributed in the Tampa Bay area has dipped slightly.

In fiscal year 2005, the state took in about 72 percent of what was owed. So far this year, only 67 percent has been collected and distributed.

Lou Gonzales, a 42-year-old Gulfport carpenter, counts himself among the lucky.

Gonzales acknowledges that he hasn't always made child support a priority. For a long time, he ignored it altogether. But a few years ago, Gonzales got serious about the responsibility. He began making monthly payments to the state, even though his daughter is now 21.

Once again, the economy intervened. Construction slowed, and Gonzales was out of a job.

This summer, the Department of Revenue suspended his driver's license because he couldn't pay. He got it back a few weeks ago after successfully pleading his case.

"It's a Catch-22," he said. "You're basically being turned into a criminal because you're broke."

Wednesday brought some good news for Evans, the man who was making child support payments before he got laid off. After two months of searching and sending out hundreds of resumes, he got a new job at another call center.

"So," he said, "there's been a little silver lining to all of this."

Thousands of jobless in Tampa Bay seek relief from child support payments 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 10:47pm]

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