One Friday last July, siblings Bianca Torres, 11, and Sebastian Torres, 9, balance on a tree swing outside their Pembroke Pines home. Their mother watches, knowing how aware they are that finances are tight. Since their father stopped paying child support, she can’t afford to fix the hole in her roof and has pulled the plug on the children’s extracurriculars.

Florida’s child support ‘carousel’ exhausts parents, costs kids

State agency, courts slow to respond when parents — and kids — can least afford it
One Friday last July, siblings Bianca Torres, 11, and Sebastian Torres, 9, balance on a tree swing outside their Pembroke Pines home. Their mother watches, knowing how aware they are that finances are tight. Since their father stopped paying child support, she can’t afford to fix the hole in her roof and has pulled the plug on the children’s extracurriculars. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
State agency, courts slow to respond when parents — and kids — can least afford it
Published May 4|Updated May 12

In the waiting room of a Jacksonville orthodontist, Connie Bryan pulled out her phone and opened a decade-old spreadsheet of what her ex-husband owed. She added his half of the $111 monthly cost for their 13-year-old’s braces and $10 for a bottle of mouth rinse. The tally stood at $97,000.

After the visit, Bryan brightly promised her daughter, Bridget, she’d take her to get her ears pierced. But that night last May, something more serious was on Bryan’s mind. She hadn’t told her daughter they were facing eviction.

Bridget Bryan, 13, right, looks on last May as her mother, Connie Bryan, stops at a counter to deal with finances following her appointment at Coastline Orthodontics in Jacksonville. Bryan has battled the Department of Revenue, seeking help with child support, for a decade. “They seem to forget that each case that pops up on their screen represents a family,” she said.
Bridget Bryan, 13, right, looks on last May as her mother, Connie Bryan, stops at a counter to deal with finances following her appointment at Coastline Orthodontics in Jacksonville. Bryan has battled the Department of Revenue, seeking help with child support, for a decade. “They seem to forget that each case that pops up on their screen represents a family,” she said. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

To give Bridget a normal childhood, Bryan worked as many as four jobs: full-time executive assistant, Uber driver, pageant organizer and security worker. But the pandemic had wiped out her side jobs and savings. She no longer could afford the $1,635 rent for their two-bedroom apartment, with Bridget’s white canopy bed and her cheerleading trophies.

Bridget was one of at least 392,000 children in Florida in 2020 for whom support went unpaid. Parents such as her mom were owed more than $6.7 billion.

Many must fight for themselves.

More than 60 parents spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about their struggles to receive payment either through the courts or the state’s Department of Revenue, which enforce child support in Florida.

At least a dozen said the agency closed cases after middling efforts. Many spoke of clogged court calendars, ignored pleas and yearslong waits for the first check — struggles echoed in public records. Most turned to family or public assistance, often for the first time.

The Department of Revenue struggled to get child support initiated for families, performing worse than 44 other states, the latest federal data from the Office of Child Support Enforcement show. It failed to compel 38 percent of parents to pay on time, below that of 35 other states. And payments for children were held up due to errors, missing information and legal snags more in Florida than anywhere else in the country.

The system can be just as problematic for parents who owe, leaving some who already are struggling on the hook for more than 50 percent of their incomes.

State lawmakers have not heeded calls to fix inequities.

The state’s task is rife with complexities, from tracking parents on the move to sorting the poor from the stubborn. The agency described its system to the Times as “performing at the highest levels in the program’s history.” And for a majority of parents, the system works.

But for thousands of others, it’s a slog. Some shell out for private investigators, process servers or attorneys. The rest go it alone — taking time away from kids to write legal memos and race to hearings, even becoming bounty hunters of a sort. Meanwhile, their children accrue negative school lunch balances, delay doctor visits and end up on public assistance.

Over 11 years, Bryan has communicated with the Department of Revenue 123 times. Records show 87 different employees handled her case a combined 287 times. She’s attended 36 court hearings. She’s reached out to governors, senators, representatives. And three times, she’s staked out her ex’s home in her Hyundai to have him taken to jail.

Bryan, 48, also carves out time to help moderate a Florida-based child support Facebook group with thousands of members, mostly moms: Four out of five custodial parents in the U.S. are women.

A Cracker Barrel waitress, who was owed $69,000 in support, posted a note from a shelter in Apopka, where she had landed with her four kids.

A Fort Myers mother of three, who had moved in with her grown daughter, wrote that she had received only one payment and was owed a quarter of a million dollars.

A Maitland mother posted her ex’s bank statement showing he made a $307,000 down payment on a house, though she has received little for their son in nine years.

Bryan tries to help them navigate the system, but she knows the path can feel hopeless.

Falling off the ledger

It’s hard to imagine anyone slipping through the government’s child support gauntlet.

But parents in need of support often encounter shortcomings with the two major avenues that are supposed to help them. Parents can end up whipsawed between both systems.

Many parents start in the courts amid divorce or custody battles. They, or the attorneys they hire, can ask a judge to make the other parent pay. Parents may turn to Florida’s child support agency — and often do when frustrated by the courts or unable to afford an attorney.

The Department of Revenue has a wider range of enforcement tools and staff lawyers who help parents collect. The agency — which gets two-thirds of its $249 million budget from the federal government — picks up most cases of parents on public assistance.

The agency plugs parents’ incomes into a table and, based on who makes how much, determines what the non-custodial parent owes. Its algorithm-driven system can, for example, prompt employers to deduct wages or prevent a parent from getting a passport. Like the courts, the agency can request driver’s license suspensions and, in extreme cases, bring civil contempt actions — which can result in jail time.

“I don’t believe the program has stood by a single year without trying to achieve better performance for the customers we serve,” said Ann Coffin, director of Florida’s child support program. Agency officials said Florida’s billions in past-due support are inflated by some folded-in alimony figures. The agency collects a payment of at least a penny in three out of four overdue support cases. Officials disagreed with applying federal performance measures — though the numbers are audited and used to hand out bonuses to states — saying Florida’s population churn and differences in data and state size can lead to misleading conclusions.

But between the impersonal agency and the slow-moving courts, it has become easier for evaders to pay a token amount or nothing at all and string families along for years.

“There is more of a chance of getting away with something in Florida than you would in some other states since Florida heavily relies on automation,” with less on-the-ground searching, said Jeff Ball, a national child support consultant and co-author of The Insiders’ Guide to Child Support.

A parent in Orange County owes the most – $2.7 million – and in Miami-Dade, another owes $2.3 million. At least 12 owe more than $1 million, including a parent in the Tampa Bay area. The average owed is $15,621.

To find parents, the Department of Revenue’s computer system scans hiring data at 2.8 million Florida businesses and scours government databases.

“That computer system allows us to do a lot of work that, in other places, humans have to do,” said Jim Zingale, executive director.

More and more, people work in the gig economy or for themselves, outside the agency’s reach.

Florida recently required employers to report independent contractors who make $600 or more a year. But if a delinquent parent stays under the radar, in some cases for as little as six months, federal rules allow a case to fall off agency ledgers.

Since 2014, the state has closed more than 13,000 cases, a miniscule percentage that nevertheless represents $21.5 million in unpaid support. State officials abandoned half of those because the nonpaying parent couldn’t be found. Parents can try to get cases reopened. One Daytona Beach mom said she filled out the same maddening paperwork three times.

The agency’s caseload has fallen 30 percent in the last decade, echoing a national decline from Americans putting off or forgoing marriage and childbearing. While most states have reduced overdue support during the past five years, however, Florida has not. The backlog here went up 10 percent.

Because of the pandemic, Florida has deployed its harshest tools less often. Since 2019, the state saw an almost two-thirds drop in license suspensions and a one-quarter decrease in actions that could lead to jail time, according to the Department of Revenue.

But Coffin, the head of Florida’s child support program, said the agency still believes in those tools, especially to get people talking to its employees.

Florida has had success with enforcement, Ball said, once a parent’s obligation has been set.

But the state is not as good at getting child support started for parents.

Caught in the middle

One morning in January, Nicole Burlinson hugged her 11-year-old son, Aiden, as he headed out to walk half a block to his elementary school in Maitland. “You’ve got this!” she said. “Mommy loves you.”

Aiden was a happy boy with an easy smile, his mind mostly on his friends and his upcoming football games. But he’d struggled to balance life in two counties.

For nine years, he’d been the center of a feud. His dad, Craig Wilson, lived in Martin County, his mom in Orange. He’d traveled two hours back and forth, watching from the back seat, listening to the yelling during exchanges at roadside plazas and police stations.

On a school day last April, Aiden Wilson, 11, embraces his mother, Nicole Burlinson, while she gives him a goodbye kiss in their Maitland neighborhood. “My poor son. He’s 11 years old,” Burlinson said. “I can keep court stuff away, but he’s not stupid. He knows something is going on.”
On a school day last April, Aiden Wilson, 11, embraces his mother, Nicole Burlinson, while she gives him a goodbye kiss in their Maitland neighborhood. “My poor son. He’s 11 years old,” Burlinson said. “I can keep court stuff away, but he’s not stupid. He knows something is going on.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Burlinson had obtained a two-year injunction for protection against the boy’s father for domestic violence. Wilson, who was never charged, had denied the accusations. He’d spent thousands to find Burlinson in contempt for depriving him of time with Aiden — a result, she said, of following the injunction’s rules.

It had been three years since Burlinson learned she should be receiving $884 a month for Aiden. Since then, she’d had 28 conversations with the Department of Revenue, her records show, but never a child support hearing. Last September, in the court system, Judge Brett M. Waronicki had decided on a timesharing plan — but his order did not mention child support.

Burlinson had pleaded with the agency for temporary support, only to be told a hearing officer would not likely intervene in such a heavily litigated court case. And, in a major hurdle for families, agency-funded hearing officers can’t wade into custody issues.

A parent like Burlinson, who becomes stalled in the courts and can’t immediately get help from the agency, can lose out on support for years as issues such as timesharing are resolved.

“They knew in 2019 that Aiden needed support,” Burlinson said. “Now, we’re in 2022. That’s crazy to me.”

After walking Aiden to school in April 2021, Nicole Burlinson hops on a virtual court hearing in the living room of her Maitland home. She becomes emotional while realizing she’ll need to drive to Stuart for her next hearing. “I’m so sick of the system,” she said. “I can’t ever get ahead.”
After walking Aiden to school in April 2021, Nicole Burlinson hops on a virtual court hearing in the living room of her Maitland home. She becomes emotional while realizing she’ll need to drive to Stuart for her next hearing. “I’m so sick of the system,” she said. “I can’t ever get ahead.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Finally, that January day, her court file swollen by some 800 pleadings, Burlinson had a chance to make her case. She logged onto a Zoom hearing, her face appearing next to her son’s father and his attorney, who was arguing for another delay.

Her ex had been a British world champion powerboat racer sponsored by GEICO and president of an international distributor of power boats. Later, he led a custom hull manufacturing business in Fort Pierce. The 41-year-old Wilson no longer holds those positions, his attorney said, and now helps run a family boat propeller repair business.

He could not be reached for comment.

Wilson’s financial records listed his latest annual income at $76,000, which Burlinson suspected was an understatement. She had obtained his 2021 bank statement detailing a $307,000 down payment on a house.

Yet she had received little. In 2015, an unusual decision by Martin County Judge Laurie E. Buchanan allowed two items Wilson had given Burlinson to serve as child support until 2026: an engagement ring he claimed was worth $26,000 and an old Mercedes he valued at $9,000.

Burlinson’s lawyer at the time, Martin Kofsky, was surprised, especially since those items were not appraised.

“It was improper for the judge to do that,” he said. Burlinson had run out of money to appeal.

Wilson’s attorney, Richard Barlow, said the issue was decided — a done deal.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, the issue is she never appealed it,” he said. “It can’t be addressed.”

Waronicki and Buchanan, the current and past judges on the case, declined to comment, citing judicial ethics rules.

Burlinson, 45, says she sold the ring for $4,000, enough to pay lawyers — for a little while.

Now she sat in the hearing lawyerless, owing $60,000 in legal fees. She couldn’t get assigned a free lawyer because she lived outside the county. She’d been laid off. A nursing student, she said she supported her son as she had for seven years: alone, with a combination of jobs, unemployment, stimulus payments and food assistance.

“This case has been pending for 29 months,” said hearing officer Elizabeth McHugh. But Wilson’s attorney had not received some documents from either the Department of Revenue or Burlinson, so McHugh postponed the case another 60 days.

“I am exhausted,” Burlinson said. “All of this is a waste of time — time I could be spending with my son.”

Frustrating delays

Von Powell handled contentious cases at the Department of Revenue for a decade. In late 2018 he walked away, feeling ineffectual.

The system handicaps itself, Powell said, through tangled policies, laws, inefficiencies and automation: “It’s very difficult to explain to a parent they’ve got to wait anywhere from six months to two years before the case can get seen by the judge when they can’t pay their bills now.”

The agency has been chided for long waits in getting child support set up for families. A 2021 state audit looked at about two dozen orders for support and found that one in four had delays up to two years.

Employees struggled to complete tasks due to “management vacancies and management oversight errors,” staff told auditors. The agency now flags cases that drag and has seen a leap this year in getting support ordered.

Many states assign a caseworker to each family. Not Florida. Each time a parent calls, someone new must catch up.

The Times spoke to half a dozen former department employees, all frustrated by their inability to help.

Pam Nelson, who handled support orders for three years until 2015, said managers reprimanded workers who spent too much time with clients.

“All they cared about was getting as many orders finalized as possible, and they didn’t care how they got them,” she said.

Supervisors kept the pressure on, she said, even when employees found mistakes.

Child support in Florida by the numbers

1.4 million

Children with support cases in Florida in 2020, with half handled by the Department of Revenue and the rest in the courts or privately.**

$6.7 billion

The amount parents in the Florida Department of Revenue caseload were owed in child support, as of 2020**

$15,621

Average amount owed by delinquent parents in Florida as of early 2022*

38

Percent of Florida parents that failed to make payments on time in the Department of Revenue caseload in 2020*

45 out of 50

Florida Department of Revenue’s standing among states in establishing child support payment orders in 2020**

226,724 and 217,257 and 124,575

The number of Black, white and Hispanic parents in the Department of Revenue’s caseload owed child support as of 2022*

$1.6 billion

The amount of support paid out to parents by the Department of Revenue in 2020-2021, including $594 million in past due support*

2,275

The number of full-time Department of Revenue child support employees for state fiscal year 2020-21*

Over three months in 2019, the state held off on distributing $17.8 million in support because of inaccurate or missing information, according to federal data. Agency officials said most of the money eventually was released to parents, and that most of the held-up funds were not its responsibility, falling instead to cases in the courts or private arrangements. But the only state that approached that amount was Alabama, with $6 million.

The Department of Revenue does not verify court data, state auditors said, and in many cases, workers recorded information incorrectly.

Though the department offers guidance, auditors said, employees struggled to reconcile court forms from 67 counties with agency data fields. Any change, officials said, would require a new court rule or change in the law.

Despite recommendations, little has been done.

Falling into poverty

Alicia Graham, a Daytona Beach mom, has spent two decades trudging through Florida’s child support system, an agonizing grind with a paltry payoff — one that forced her family onto public assistance.

Her ex-husband, Marcus D. Smith, has paid a combined $16,000 for their son, Lorenz, now 24, and 21-year-old twins, Faith and Charity, court records show. He owes her $34,000.

Smith owns a business detailing cars, boats and planes, according to state records and his business Facebook page. In recent years, he has sent Graham $5 every couple of weeks. He also has failed to pay child support to another Florida mother, records show.

Graham, 46, had just gotten out of the Army and given birth to the twins when she and Smith split.

Graham remembers her electricity being turned off, the eviction and the 2.5 mile walk to criminal justice classes between shifts as an administrative assistant. She remembers borrowing from family, friends, people at church — anyone who could give.

Charity Graham, 21, right, hands her mother, Alicia Graham, a past due bill from her orthodontist. The $186 payment owed in February, now a month late, was an additional expense weighing on the college student, who is renting an apartment with her twin, Faith, in Dade City. Alicia Graham, who is owed $34,000 from the twins’ father, couldn’t afford to get Charity braces when she was young. “He’s gotten away with it so long, he’s built a life on it,” Graham said. “There’s no consequences, no repercussions.”
Charity Graham, 21, right, hands her mother, Alicia Graham, a past due bill from her orthodontist. The $186 payment owed in February, now a month late, was an additional expense weighing on the college student, who is renting an apartment with her twin, Faith, in Dade City. Alicia Graham, who is owed $34,000 from the twins’ father, couldn’t afford to get Charity braces when she was young. “He’s gotten away with it so long, he’s built a life on it,” Graham said. “There’s no consequences, no repercussions.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

As cases plod on, parents like Graham turn to social service programs. She lived in government-subsidized housing and received food assistance, Medicaid and a college stipend from the military. In 2019, federal data show, more than 61,000 custodial parents on public assistance in Florida were owed nearly $367 million in overdue child support.

Graham couldn’t afford to give her kids an allowance or send them on class trips, she said. A family friend took them to Disney World. There was no money to fix Charity’s crooked front teeth, so she is paying off her own braces with money she earned at Starbucks.

“We’re not twins anymore,” Alicia Graham joked to her daughter Charity Graham, 21, when she noticed the gap between Charity’s front teeth had closed. On a March day, before going out with her family, Charity looks at the braces she paid for herself while laying down the edges of her hair.
“We’re not twins anymore,” Alicia Graham joked to her daughter Charity Graham, 21, when she noticed the gap between Charity’s front teeth had closed. On a March day, before going out with her family, Charity looks at the braces she paid for herself while laying down the edges of her hair. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

All the while, there was little action on Graham’s child support case. In 2016, a deputy visited Smith’s job to take him to jail, court records show, but left after a woman put $500 toward his child support obligation.

Graham said she often reminded the Department of Revenue where Smith lived. Each time, she spoke to someone different. She kept tabs on his business license. But the state suspends only occupational and professional licenses, such as those of Realtors and barbers — not state permits to run a business.

“There’s no being accountable,” said Graham, who now works in foster care. “There’s no consistency of services. The child suffers.”

The state moved to suspend Smith’s driver’s license in 2019 and 2020 but canceled the actions as he sent in $5 once or twice a month, Graham’s records show. He was supposed to pay $252 a month. A payment will halt a suspension, according to the Department of Revenue.

He didn’t appear at a contempt hearing in December 2020, the first in six years, and was ordered to pay $500. In May 2021, Smith found the money and has continued to transmit $5 to Graham every few weeks. She said that has spared him further consequences, so far.

Reached by phone, Smith told the Times he couldn’t talk because he was working. Machines whirred.

Asked why he hadn’t paid, Smith said, “I’ve been paying, just not the payments they want.” Then he hung up.

“At this point, I’ve given up,” Graham said. “There’s nothing more I can do.”

Public assistance for the first time

Christine Shenoi peered out from her Snell Isle home one day last April as her child’s father pulled up in the circle drive in a matte-wrapped Tesla.

He extracted their 2-year-old from a car seat and set her down on the pavers. The mother picked up her daughter and headed back up the steps without a word.

It had been almost two years since her husband, Raveen Shenoi, an emergency room doctor, had told her he no longer loved her and had run off with a nurse.

With his earnings of $600,000 a year and their million-dollar home in St. Petersburg, the new mother wasn’t expecting divorce to wipe her out.

Her ex kept paying the $6,000 mortgage and other bills. But she and her daughter eventually ended up living on borrowed cash and food assistance.

Their case was thorny, to be sure, but some 19 months in court had made it thornier. It can take a while to get on a judge’s calendar, so any disagreement can build and explode. Families embroiled in these wars can become depleted – emotionally and financially – as attorneys bill $350 an hour and the arguments stretch over months, then years.

“Mommy, hode me,” said Christine Shenoi’s 2-year-old daughter, reaching her little arms up. “Hode me. Huggie. HUGGIE.” In the middle of packing boxes and washing dishes in April 2021, Christine Shenoi takes her daughter into her arms. They are preparing for movers as they vacate the St. Petersburg home they once lived in as a family.
“Mommy, hode me,” said Christine Shenoi’s 2-year-old daughter, reaching her little arms up. “Hode me. Huggie. HUGGIE.” In the middle of packing boxes and washing dishes in April 2021, Christine Shenoi takes her daughter into her arms. They are preparing for movers as they vacate the St. Petersburg home they once lived in as a family. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Shenois’ court papers outline their growing anger. She accused him of squirreling away income in Bitcoin and dropping thousands of dollars on vacations with the nurse. He accused her of keeping him from their daughter.

In early 2020, Judge Cynthia Newton ordered Raveen Shenoi to cover his wife’s legal fees – roughly $18,000. But the judge didn’t order temporary support for Christine or their child, as Christine’s attorney had requested — something Christine discovered months later when Raveen Shenoi stopped paying the $2,000 a month he had been volunteering.

A court spokesman said Christine dropped her request for temporary support. Court documents show she twice brought up the issue again over the next five months.

Christine Shenoi borrowed $30,000 from her parents, who put it on credit.

Reached by phone, Raveen Shenoi declined to comment. His lawyer did not return calls or emails.

In January 2021, Judge Newton ended the couple’s five-year marriage, granted shared custody and ordered Raveen Shenoi to pay $868 a month for their daughter. By then, he owed $30,000 in past child support, which the judge said he could pay back at $200 per month.

Christine Shenoi, who had left her job as a speech language pathologist before a debilitating pregnancy and premature delivery, felt stuck. She couldn’t afford a new place, and as the pandemic surged, feared returning to work. Besides, her ex had agreed she would stay home with the baby.

The judge had ordered Raveen Shenoi to pay about $16,000 from their joint assets by March 2021, but he had sent a quarter of that – which she spent on legal bills.

Her bank account had $1,640.

Going back to court would require time and money she didn’t have, and her attorney mentioned waiting, letting the house sell.

When it did, she bought a townhome in Lutz. But the 47-year-old worries for others who don’t share her resources or luck.

“I’m blown away by the lack of care for an infant in the court system,” she said.

Christine Shenoi caresses her daughter’s back in September 2021, after two years of strife with her now ex-husband, while her daughter plays on a learning app at their new home in Lutz. “At the end of the day, no one had issues with the fact that he … has $30,000 in back child support,” Shenoi said.
Christine Shenoi caresses her daughter’s back in September 2021, after two years of strife with her now ex-husband, while her daughter plays on a learning app at their new home in Lutz. “At the end of the day, no one had issues with the fact that he … has $30,000 in back child support,” Shenoi said. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Judge Newton forwarded questions to Pinellas County courts spokesperson Stephen Thompson. In a statement, Thompson blamed Christine Shenoi for not sounding an alarm after the divorce.

“The judge would have no idea payments were not being made unless some document to that effect was filed in court,” Thompson said.

He rattled off remote job openings in the states where she is licensed.

“The ex-wife chose not to work,” he added.

Since the divorce, Raveen Shenoi has been paying child support. Christine Shenoi has found a job. And yet she said she has paid $25,000 to an attorney to fix issues in Judge Newton’s ruling — from a missing tax refund to a faulty division in daycare and medical expenses — and to go after her ex-husband again for not paying his share of those ancillary costs.

A hearing is scheduled for mid-May.

Each time she has decided to fight, it has cost her.

Christine Shenoi kisses her 2-year-old daughter before giving her lunch in their St. Petersburg home last April.
Christine Shenoi kisses her 2-year-old daughter before giving her lunch in their St. Petersburg home last April. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

‘It’s a carousel’

Errol Torres needed his driver’s license back. Torres, 55, was self-employed, with an inconsistent finance business. He sometimes made an extra couple hundred dollars as an actor. He couldn’t afford his $1,500 child support payment, his attorney argued.

“He’s involved in the children’s lives,” said Maria T. Sallato, appearing before a child support hearing officer last April. “Mom works 9 to 5. So Dad is the one who has to pick up the children from school every day.”

Torres and his ex-girlfriend, Laurie Henriquez, 48, of Pembroke Pines, had been fighting over child support for seven years.

His ex paid the mortgage and covered Bianca’s gymnastics and Sebastien’s Tae-kwon-do. She’d been laid off as a fraud analyst and depleted her 401K and daughter’s college fund. Sometimes, she could barely afford to fill her gas tank.

She’d tried to get a judge to hold Torres in contempt for failure to pay at least nine times. Sometimes he sent a single payment. She turned to the Department of Revenue, per a judge’s order, but found more roadblocks.

Sebastien Torres, 9, left, Laurie Henriquez, center, and Bianca Torres, 11, right, share a moment last July at their Pembroke Pines home. Henriquez tells her son to take a shower, and he does a somersault on a mat. Henriquez is stressed, ruminating on the  hole in her roof she can’t afford to fix. “Having a child is like having an empty check,” she says. “You have a blank brain and you have to fill it up. ... I don’t want to miss an opportunity with them.”
Sebastien Torres, 9, left, Laurie Henriquez, center, and Bianca Torres, 11, right, share a moment last July at their Pembroke Pines home. Henriquez tells her son to take a shower, and he does a somersault on a mat. Henriquez is stressed, ruminating on the hole in her roof she can’t afford to fix. “Having a child is like having an empty check,” she says. “You have a blank brain and you have to fill it up. ... I don’t want to miss an opportunity with them.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Sebastien Torres, 9, tells his mother his skates are getting too small. “Hey Mama, I need wider roller skates,” he says. “I need new roller skates,” Bianca Torres calls out. Laurie Henriquez explains that their family cannot afford many expenses right now.
Sebastien Torres, 9, tells his mother his skates are getting too small. “Hey Mama, I need wider roller skates,” he says. “I need new roller skates,” Bianca Torres calls out. Laurie Henriquez explains that their family cannot afford many expenses right now. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Henriquez’ attorney, Dara Schottenfeld, said that each time Torres’ license is threatened or he faces arrest, he pays something — which starts the cycle again.

“When I tell you it’s a carousel, that’s what it is,” she said. “He doesn’t want to pay child support and nothing ever happens.”

Torres, who declined to comment, owed $39,000. He drove a 2000 Porsche, which he reported was worth $80,000, that could only fit one of the kids, and he had taken to borrowing his ex’s car. Now, he had hired an attorney, who also declined to comment, to argue for more custody and thus lower payments. But, as all the lawyers kept reminding them, the hearing on that issue was seven months away.

“I am in need of child support now,” Henriquez burst out, tired of her kids always seeing her angry, tired of survival mode. “He does have an MBA. Why is it taking so long?”

Torres said he had applied for jobs as a bank teller, a barista at Starbucks, a cashier at Aldi.

Michael Sullivan, the hearing officer, restored Torres’ license.

It’s an unpopular decision with custodial parents like Henriquez who say the license is often their only leverage. But many judges reason that making money to pay child support is tougher without one. It’s a push and pull of punishment and lenience familiar to many parents in Florida’s system — a frustrating cycle for each party, with little to show for their trouble.

“Your children need support every month,” Sullivan said. He wanted to see a payment of $3,600 in 30 days.

It didn’t happen. Torres lost his license again. Not until fall, as a custody hearing approached, would he start paying regularly. By then, Henriquez had swallowed her guilt and sacrificed the kids’ activities. Sebastien had cried when told he’d have to give up martial arts.

This year, Torres stopped paying. Now Henriquez is staring down a scraped-out bank account, unsure how she’s going to pay her mortgage.

Laurie Henriquez digs in her purse last July after her son Sebastien Torres, 9, asks to buy a Gatorade at Pembroke Pines’ Sunny Gymnastics while they wait for his sister to finish her practice. Another parent, at right, overhears and offers them cash. Henriquez had just paid for her daughter to continue participating in gymnastics — another item that put a dent in her budget.
Laurie Henriquez digs in her purse last July after her son Sebastien Torres, 9, asks to buy a Gatorade at Pembroke Pines’ Sunny Gymnastics while they wait for his sister to finish her practice. Another parent, at right, overhears and offers them cash. Henriquez had just paid for her daughter to continue participating in gymnastics — another item that put a dent in her budget. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

‘It’s ineffective’

“We’re not here to critique the system,” Stefan C. Norrbin said carefully this winter, standing before a group of legislators and a near-empty audience in Tallahassee. “We’re here to report what’s happening to people.”

Norrbin, an economics professor at Florida State University, said the dollar amounts for child support payments have not changed since 1993. Though the payments don’t run afoul of federal rules, his team’s economic models found that, surprisingly, some parents pay too much support. The outdated payment plan detailed in state law can also force an unknown number of poor people deeper into poverty.

“It doesn’t work the way it was intended,” he said.

State Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Broward Democrat — and mom who receives support — questioned economists’ suggestions in light of the fresh hardships of the pandemic.

“I’m just wondering, as a mother, how you came to that assumption,” Bartleman said, “that we are paying less for children?”

Norrbin acknowledged the data predated the pandemic.

Florida allows some poverty-stricken parents to keep a reserve of their own income to live on, outside the reach of child support payments. In reality — because Florida determines those payments based on combined incomes — not all poor parents get to take advantage.

“It’s ineffective,” Norrbin said.

He recommended a fix to account for a parent’s low-income status, without being lumped in with the other parent, something he and other economists had suggested in 2017, 2013, 2011, 2008 and 2004.

Nothing has been done.

Javanth Charles, 30, was one of those parents facing disproportionate payments. Now a Duke Energy employee in Pasco County, he blames the system for derailing his military career.

While studying at Florida A&M University, he joined the Army National Guard and received a $500 monthly ROTC stipend. But the child support payment for his daughter, London, amounted to 60 percent of his income.

Worse, he said, he didn’t know he owed it because the notice supposedly went to his parents’ house. With support unpaid, the state suspended his license. The punishment, he believes, cost him a promotion to lieutenant.

London Charles, 7, shows her father, Javanth Charles, 30, that she completed her homework assignment last December in their Citrus Springs home, where they now live with her grandparents. Javanth Charles, who once faced overwhelming child support payments, now finds himself as the parent who is owed.
London Charles, 7, shows her father, Javanth Charles, 30, that she completed her homework assignment last December in their Citrus Springs home, where they now live with her grandparents. Javanth Charles, who once faced overwhelming child support payments, now finds himself as the parent who is owed. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Three years later, he became the primary caregiver to London and a son, Connor. He’s owed $20,000 in support.

“I’m getting no help,” he said. “But when it was me and I was in the military, I lost half my life.”

Reforms embrace diplomacy

Amid a growing sensitivity to poverty, child support agencies across the nation have begun turning to diplomacy rather than harassment.

Reform hinges on better differentiating between those who won’t pay and those who can’t.

Florida struggles with that.

For instance, the Department of Revenue knows about the 47,000 parents here who were on public assistance, disability or unemployment in 2019 and couldn’t pay $67 million in support on time.

But almost one third of the state’s late child support belonged to 77,000 parents with no reported income on file. Whether they could pay that $201 million, the state didn’t know.

Florida has also been slower to introduce reforms to help poor parents manage disproportionate payments and find jobs — changes that have multiplied elsewhere since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that states should stop penalizing parents who can’t pay. Such reforms, said Ball, the consultant, help address disparate effects on people of color.

The Department of Revenue also kept $31 million of its 2019 collections to pay back state and federal governments for food and cash assistance those families used. Half of the states allow parents to keep some or all of that money. In Colorado, for example, that policy put an extra $167 a month in the pockets of some low-income families and led to more support paid.

Other states have programs to engage parents who owe. A majority negotiate to reduce debt. Texas often matches parents with job counselors. Nearly all of Georgia’s judicial circuits have a parent accountability court, with services such as literacy and substance abuse training.

None of these initiatives exists Florida-wide.

“Our old enforcement tools need to be revisited,” said Tanguler Gray, who headed Georgia’s program before President Joe Biden tapped her to lead the national Office of Child Support Enforcement.

The national agency believes states may benefit from connecting unemployed parents with services, tracking promises to attend work programs and more quickly adjusting payments based on circumstances, efforts Florida’s system neglects.

The state has made some strides. An approach debuted in 2016 that offers some parents payment plans and holds off on penalties while they seek work. The Department of Revenue may expand a pilot program to provide job counselors at courthouses. A new law is poised to provide “fatherhood engagement specialists” and direct job services to communities with high unemployment and incarceration. Bill sponsor Rep. Thad Altman, a Republican, said more jobs mean more support paid.

That makes it, he said, a “motherhood bill,” too.

But the inequities in child support payments cited by the economist, he said, remain problems for another day.

London Charles, 7, climbs down a tree in her family’s backyard after hearing her father call for her to talk on the phone with her uncle.
London Charles, 7, climbs down a tree in her family’s backyard after hearing her father call for her to talk on the phone with her uncle. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

An unexpected windfall

Connie Bryan says her crusade for child support has robbed her of important moments.

Once, she’d skipped an elementary school honor roll ceremony for a court hearing. Her ex had not shown.

“You weren’t there!” daughter Bridget said when her mother arrived.

Bridget is a typical teenager, consumed with cheerleading, makeup and her Snapchat streaks. She hasn’t seen her father in years — too many broken promises. Her activities are costly, but her mom has done her best — at the expense of her retirement.

“You’re only 13 once,” Bryan said as Bridget giggled in her cheer gym with her best friends last June. “She only gets to be a kid once.”

Connie Bryan, left, watches as her daughter, Bridget Bryan, 13, center, who is holding onto her mother and older cousin, gets a cartilage piercing by Synthia Roy at Mystic Koi Tattoos and Body Piercing in Jacksonville after cheerleading practice last May.
Connie Bryan, left, watches as her daughter, Bridget Bryan, 13, center, who is holding onto her mother and older cousin, gets a cartilage piercing by Synthia Roy at Mystic Koi Tattoos and Body Piercing in Jacksonville after cheerleading practice last May. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Soon, they’d be packing Bridget’s trophies for a less expensive home northwest of Jacksonville.

Bryan’s ex-husband, Gregory Q. Bryan Jr., 53, is a carpenter who has worked jobs sandblasting, painting ships and building bridges, she said. The Department of Revenue has garnished more than $30,000 from those jobs over 12 years. Since 2017, he has made only a handful of payments. Connie Bryan, burnt out from years of empty promises, produced a text of his: “So you think I’m going to pay you for the misery you have put me through. You still don’t get it.”

Gregory Bryan, in a phone interview, said the housing crisis hurt him professionally, and he hasn’t gotten a reduction in child support.

He didn’t believe the government should be involved, “and there should be no hearing or office for any of this kind of thing.”

The system doesn’t incentivize reconciliation, which, he said, pains him as a Christian.

“I believe you marry who you marry,” he said. “My wife left me, and she didn’t try to work things out. She took me straight to court.”

Willfully failing to provide support is a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida. Repeat convictions or debts over $5,000 not paid for a year can get bumped to a third-degree felony, but few authorities take that route. The State Attorney’s Office in Connie Bryan’s county hasn’t prosecuted anyone over child support for at least 15 years. And statewide, according to a Times review, just one person faced criminal charges in 2020.

Top left: Aiden Wilson, 11, laughs as his mother, Nicole Burlinson, brushes his hair before school last April. She’d coaxed him to the table with a bowl of Cheerios. Sometimes she chokes up at the thought of what a sweet boy he is. “Your hair looks so good, dude,” she tells him. Aiden’s easygoing disposition has suffered from the stress of his parents’ ongoing battle.
Top right: twins Faith Graham, 21, left, and Charity Graham, 21, right, lay a hand on their mother Alicia Graham’s hands in her Daytona Beach apartment. “Being in that hole for years put a strain on family relationships,” Alicia Graham said of her two-decade effort to get child support. “People don’t understand.” 
Bottom left: While walking Calypso, the dog, around their Citrus Springs neighborhood in late 2021, London Charles, 7, left, and her father Javanth Charles, right, discuss how she’s doing in school. 
Bottom right: Sebastian Torres, 9, embraces his mother, Laurie Henriquez, before going to bed at their Pembroke Pines home last July. 
Center: Christine Shenoi guides her daughter as the girl parks her toy fire truck in the garage after riding around their new Lutz neighborhood. Shenoi has found a job as a speech language pathologist, but she is still getting on her feet again after divorce and her battle for child support wiped her out.
Top left: Aiden Wilson, 11, laughs as his mother, Nicole Burlinson, brushes his hair before school last April. She’d coaxed him to the table with a bowl of Cheerios. Sometimes she chokes up at the thought of what a sweet boy he is. “Your hair looks so good, dude,” she tells him. Aiden’s easygoing disposition has suffered from the stress of his parents’ ongoing battle. Top right: twins Faith Graham, 21, left, and Charity Graham, 21, right, lay a hand on their mother Alicia Graham’s hands in her Daytona Beach apartment. “Being in that hole for years put a strain on family relationships,” Alicia Graham said of her two-decade effort to get child support. “People don’t understand.” Bottom left: While walking Calypso, the dog, around their Citrus Springs neighborhood in late 2021, London Charles, 7, left, and her father Javanth Charles, right, discuss how she’s doing in school. Bottom right: Sebastian Torres, 9, embraces his mother, Laurie Henriquez, before going to bed at their Pembroke Pines home last July. Center: Christine Shenoi guides her daughter as the girl parks her toy fire truck in the garage after riding around their new Lutz neighborhood. Shenoi has found a job as a speech language pathologist, but she is still getting on her feet again after divorce and her battle for child support wiped her out. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Policymakers question whether jailing parents is appropriate, as it is costly and keeps them out of work and away from their kids.

“Criminal prosecution in child support matters tends to be rare and ineffective,” said Jose Lopez, who works in the child support division of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

Gregory Bryan has gone to jail several times for failure to pay child support but has been released after paying a small amount or nothing at all.

For the past 2 1/2 years, Bryan’s ex-husband has been the subject of a judge’s contempt finding – ordering the sheriff to pick him up. Should he pay $2,500, he’d be freed. But contempt charges in Florida often languish. Authorities aren’t out looking for evaders. He could be jailed — but hasn’t been.

Ball, the consultant, said states that rely largely on automation should hire investigators to root out non-paying parents.

Last summer, Connie Bryan noticed that $1,800 had been deposited in her child support account. It was the most she’d ever gotten. But when she logged in, she realized it hadn’t come from Bridget’s father.

It was his stimulus checks, snagged to pay child support. Bryan’s first full payment in years had come from taxpayers, thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

Times Staff Writer Eli Murray contributed to this report.

About the reporting

Leonora LaPeter Anton began reporting on Florida’s child support system a year ago. After writing about divorce, Anton heard from mothers about issues with child support. She began following Facebook groups of parents struggling to secure the support they were owed in Florida.

Ultimately, she interviewed more than 60 parents, traveling to Jacksonville, Orlando, Pembroke Pines, Citrus Springs and Daytona Beach to visit with families. She attended court hearings and gained access to court records, several child support portals and in some cases, families’ communications histories with the Department of Revenue.

She also interviewed more than half a dozen current and former agency employees, as well as officials across Florida courts. Extended conversations in writing, then in-person and Zoom interviews, with the department and its leaders over a period of months shed light on Florida’s system.

Anton pored over a vast array of state and national data. The Times asked the Office of the State Court Administrator to determine how many people in Florida had been charged with various Florida child support-related statutes. And she consulted experts, including national leaders, industry consultants, attorneys, court administrators, judges, legislators and law enforcement officers.

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