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May 8, 2002

Governor Signs Bill to Revamp Child Support System; One Florida Child in Four to Benefit

TALLAHASSEE -- Governor Jeb Bush Wednesday signed into law legislation that will cut in half the time needed to establish a child support order in many cases, allowing hundreds of thousands of children to receive support faster. Almost one Florida child in four - nine out of 10 of them from low-income families - could be affected.

"Governor Bush's leadership is making a difference," said Jim Zingale, executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue (DOR). "This is the latest and most significant of a range of child-support reforms that are benefiting a huge number of parents and children." DOR oversees support cases involving 906,000 children.

No support order has yet been established in about 40 percent of DOR's cases. Until an order is established, DOR cannot require child support payments to be made. A joint study by DOR and the Florida Office of State Courts Administrator showed that the judicial process requires 254 days, on average, to establish a support order.

Under the legislation (HB 1689), the Florida Department of Revenue will be able to establish child support orders administratively in cases where paternity is not in question. Based on the results of a 2001 pilot project in Volusia County, administrative process will establish support orders in about half the time as in the judicial process, while allowing about twice as many cases to be processed. Seven other states use a similar process. The pilot project was established in 2001 under legislation championed by Rep. Evelyn J. Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

Under the bill, parents retain the right to use the judicial process or to appeal to a court. Paternity still must be established by a parent's voluntary acknowledgement or by court order. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin, Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Sen. Durell Peaden, Jr., R-Crestview (CS/CS/SB 2012).

Creating enforceable support orders faster also means that child support agencies like DOR can bring a growing list of tools into play more quickly, motivating parents to meet their responsibility to their children. Recent reforms include:

  • Better administrative enforcement tools: DOR can garnish wages or worker's compensation benefits of parents who owe; suspend driver licenses (36,000 last fiscal year); intercept IRS tax refunds ($61 million last fiscal year); and freeze financial accounts or seize money from the accounts if parents refuse to pay.

  • Criminal penalties for the worst deadbeats: Governor Bush recommended and lawmakers adopted a new law that lets state attorneys file criminal charges against parents who have the means to pay but who consistently fail to support their children. If a parent owes his or her children more than $5,000 for more than a year, the new law allows prosecutors to charge the parent with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to $5,000 in fines, up to five years in prison and payment of past-due support.

  • Help for parents who owe: Under Governor Bush's administration, DOR also has worked with the Agency for Workforce Innovation to set up partnerships with 24 local workforce development boards, helping to steer unemployed or underemployed noncustodial parents throughout the state to job counseling, training and job openings.

  • A modern computerized management system: In 2001, Governor Bush recommended and lawmakers approved funding for the first phase of a new, modern computer system that will perform routine tasks on child support cases by pre-programmed business rules. The system will move cases through the system faster and free human staff to improve enforcement and levels of service.

Florida's child support system plays a vital role in providing support for families, particularly low-income families, Zingale noted. Eighty-nine percent of Florida families with child support cases either currently are receiving public assistance or formerly received assistance. When poor families receive support, it makes up more than one-fourth of the family budget.

"Thanks to the new tools provided by Governor Bush, the Legislature and Congress, Florida's child support collections are growing steadily," Zingale said. In 1994, Florida collected $388.6 million on approximately 1.2 million cases. In FY 2000-2001, Florida collected a record $780 million on about 725,000 cases. Florida is on track to set another record in collections in FY 2002-'03.

"The essential building blocks are now in place to make Florida's child support system rank among the top five in the nation," Zingale said. "It will take a lot of hard work, but I am confident that Florida families will see real results in coming years."