SEBRING - Edwin Padilla claims non-custodial parents don't get a fair shake at local child support payment hearings and wants his voice heard.
Padilla and local advocate Patricia Austin held signs and handed out fliers outside the Highlands County Courthouse Thursday, to bring attention to this issue and hope other affected parents join them in their protest.
Austin, who said she has sat at other child support hearings in the Wauchula and Sebring courthouses, said she has seen other parents treated the same way, and believes it's unfair for the state to suspend driver's licenses and yet expect parents to provide for their families.
"We feel there is no equality of justice taking place in the court for child support hearings," she said in an email. "Some defendants are cut off during their hearings and the officers of the court then want to add what they want. This is wrong. Their attitudes towards the defendants, the treatment to the defendants are all wrong...and especially the outcome. We support parents supporting their children. There are those who don't want to, those who won't, those that can but can't."
Padilla, who once lived in New Jersey but moved to Florida about six years ago, said he has been belittled at the hearings, which are presided over by a hearing officer, asked intrusive questions about assets his wife owns and not allowed to answer without interruptions.
He said defendants in criminal courts are treated better.
"My goal is to get fair treatment, to be treated on an equal basis," he said.
According to Highlands County court documents, a $2,000 purge or a kind of bond was imposed upon him in February for a $5,411 child support back payment for his 16-year-old daughter.
Padilla owes a total of $56,632 in back child support payments to the State of New Jersey, an affidavit from the state's Child Support Enforcement Division states.
Padilla was given 30 days to pay the $2,000 purge or face incarceration for no more than 179 days, the order states.
His driver's license was also suspended, he said, until he made the payment.
His family and friends had to pool together the money so he wouldn't go to jail, Padilla said, adding he has been behind because he has had a hard time trying to find a job after getting laid off a few months ago.
A majority of the $56,632 he owes accrued because he was incarcerated from 2001 to 2006, he said. Padilla has been paying a "little here and there," he said, but it makes no difference because a New Jersey judge ordered him to pay $800 a month for his 16-year-old. He is also supposed to pay $30 a week toward another daughter, who is 18.
Padilla said at that time he told the judge he makes $8 an hour at a maintenance job but his child support payment amount was calculated using a $25-an-hour wage, he said. "They did me dirty," he added.
Austin said Padilla has turned his life around and is now a minister.
She believes the Legislature needs to amend the law that allows the state to suspend the driver's licenses for non-payment of child support, saying it only impedes parents from either finding a job or working and is more in favor of a work permit that will allow defendants to drive in limited situations such as these.
The two plan to protest outside the courthouse from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursdays.
"We are trying to fix a broken system," she said. "We want to amend the law with a proposed 'Drive to Provide." (We are ) asking parents' license not to be suspended, in order for them to provide but with guidelines."
Renee Watters, Florida Department of Revenue spokeswoman, said the department handles more than 850,000 child support cases on behalf of a million children.
"The department does not make policy but is responsible for administering the child support laws," she said.
In Highlands County, from April 1, 2013 to March 31, 220 parents who owed child support had their driver's licenses suspended for non-payment.
"As of March 31, 2014, there were 3,199 unique parents who owe support in cases handled in Highlands County," she said in an email.
She provided a compliance summary that shows the steps the department takes and the time frames involved when dealing with non-payment situations.
To determine what enforcement to take, the child support program takes into consideration several things, such as: payment history and personal details that may impact his/her ability to pay, which includes employment history, criminal history, receipt of government assistance, or number of child support cases, the summary states.
Parents may receive a notice; an appointment letter; have their driver's license suspended; be reported to a credit rating agency; have a lien put against their personal property; have a professional, business or recreational license suspended; to a civil contempt referral, or a referral to a state attorney or a U.S, attorney.
"Only one tool is initiated at a time," she said. "If an enforcement tool does not result in a payment from the parent ordered to pay support, another tool may be initiated."
Delinquent parents have to be notified, she said, and there are time-frames to allow parents to pay, or in some cases, contest the proposed action.