Florida’s child support system is broken. The evidence is overwhelming, but one figure reveals the extent of the damage: Uncollected payments top $6.7 billion. That much money could fund free diapers for every kid in Florida under 3 years old and pay for four years of tuition for every undergraduate currently attending the University of Florida — with nearly $4 billion left over. The mountain of uncollected payments comes thanks to an administrative labyrinth that favors lawyers over families and automation over justice, and that leaves too many parents frustrated and financially hamstrung. The system should be helping children. Too often, it’s not.
Florida failed to compel 38 percent of parents to pay on time, worse than 35 other states, according to an alarming article from Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton. That’s more than 1 in 3 children who were left to wait for some or all of the money meant to help raise them — to help them survive, if not thrive. Errors, missing information and legal snags held up payments in Florida more than anywhere else in the country. Let that sink in. The whole point is for money to get to parents who are raising children, but Florida instead has set a new standard for dysfunction.
The financial morass has real-world consequences. Mothers face eviction. Fathers choose between doctor visits and mortgage payments. Some families end up on public assistance, forcing taxpayers to subsidize the state’s failures. Others take second and third jobs, keeping them from spending time with their children. They pay lawyers, private investigators and process servers in hopes of collecting some of the money, often to no avail. One mother highlighted in the Times article communicated with the Florida Department of Revenue 123 times, with 87 different employees handling her case a combined 287 times. She also attended 36 court hearings. Despite her efforts — and all of the bureaucracy — she is still owed $97,000. In 2020, at least 392,000 kids whose parents were supposed to get financial support from another parent didn’t. That’s a midsized city of children who deserve better.
There is no one easy solution, but a good first step would be for the state to acknowledge that the system is failing many families. After that, several ideas are worth considering. Florida performed worse than 44 other states in initiating child support for families, the Times found. In many cases, support payments weren’t set up as parents battled over custody issues, which can go on for months or even years. The state must ensure the judges release child support orders as soon as possible, whether that requires adding more judges or streamlining the current process. Also, parents who owe money shouldn’t be able to make nominal payments — as little as $5 — to help delay their cases. The system also saddles some parents with payments they cannot possibly meet, including some who are on the hook for more than 50 percent of their incomes.
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Florida’s system relies a lot on automation, which works fine on the easier cases where parents pay on time and avoid disagreements. But algorithms and computer searches aren’t enough for the more complicated disputes. The state should hire more investigators to root out nonpaying parents.
Some states take a more holistic approach to help ensure parents are in a better position to pay child support. Texas often matches parents with job counselors. Georgia’s judicial circuits have a parent accountability court that includes literacy and substance abuse training. Florida, unfortunately, acts more like just a collection agency leaving many parents to fend for themselves. The $6.7 billion in unpaid child support is proof of that.
Florida’s 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 payers, and then ramping up enforcement. It’s a delicate balance. Suspending a driver’s or occupational license makes it harder for someone to earn a living — and pay their child support. So does throwing them in jail. But currently many parents have little incentive to make payments. Some know they and their lawyers can outfox the system. Want proof? At least 12 people in Florida owe more than $1 million. That doesn’t happen without people knowing they can get away with it.
State leaders pay a lot of lip service to looking out for children. But when it comes to the child support system, the talk hasn’t turned into much action. It’s well past time for that to change.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.