TALLAHASSEE — Cash-strapped parents seeking child support relief have clogged the state's family court system, forcing hearing officers to work overtime and judges to play case managers.
Parents attempting to establish child support now must wait up to six months for a hearing in some counties, and parents seeking reduced court-ordered payments because of wage cuts or unemployment are waiting up to three months, nearly double the waiting time in years past.
Court officials said they can't confront the growing demand without more employees, but there is little hope for new funding as Florida's leaders prepare to bridge a $3 billion budget shortfall.
"We just have to make do with what we've got," said Lisa Goodner, state courts administrator. "That's not optimal, but that's the same situation that all of state government finds itself in."
Child support modification cases — mostly parents seeking to pay less — have leaped 50 percent statewide since 2006.
"These are cases that really need to be heard," said Broward Circuit Judge Susan Greenhawt. "When there is a modification pending, that usually means there is a motion of contempt pending."
Failure to make payment can result in a suspended driver's license, rendering job hunts all the more difficult.
Unable to afford an attorney, many parents seek relief on their own. They often fumble through online forms, pepper clerks with procedural questions and forget necessary documents when called into court.
The amateur maneuvering has brought the pace of many family court proceedings to a crawl.
"There is an educational curve that has to be dealt with because a lot of them don't understand the law," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger. "They come into your court and say, 'I would like to have an attorney, judge, but I can't afford one.' You have to tell them, 'Well, I am sorry, but you have to do the best that you can.' "
Erroneous pleadings are often dismissed until parents fill out the correct documents and pay more fees. Then it can take up to three months to get a new hearing.
Primary caretakers are also fattening the legal workload, filing roughly 1,000 more new case requests each month compared with last year, said Bridget Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue.
Courts and nonprofit legal centers are crafting creative solutions to meet the need.
In Pinellas, the court's clerk plans to open a third self-help location in April.
The Pasco County Library Cooperative is working with Bay Area Legal Services on a partnership that would train librarians to answer questions about the court process.
In Hillsborough, family cases involving parents without professional representation were recently separated from cases handled by attorneys and assigned to a single courtroom.
But, without more employees to field requests, the pace isn't likely to quicken soon, said court officials.
Mark Chancey, a child support hearing officer in Pinellas County, said his workload has nearly doubled in the past year as his staff has tried to hear as many cases as possible. A salaried employee, he is working roughly 10 extra hours a week with no additional pay. Parents seeking procedural advice ring his office nonstop.
"We just can't handle the volume," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.