It was a goodbye no mother or child wants to experience. Embracing her son at Miami International Airport this summer, Luisa Metellus separated from her little boy for this summer, sending him to relatives out of the country as she worried she was running out dollars to feed and care for him.
The working mom’s biggest fear?
“To be on the streets, not able to pay my rent,” she told Chief I-Team Investigator Michele Gillen who looked on as Metellus fought back tears.
Metallus says her nightmare began over a year ago when she contacted Miami Dade’s Child Support Enforcement Program at the State Attorneys Office to begin the process of getting child support
“You don’t know where to go, you don’t know where to ask for help, sometimes you are embarrassed, sometimes you are humiliated,” she told Gillen.
Metallus is one of tens of thousands of custodial parents in South Florida who have turned to the Miami Dade program; the only one in the state run by the local State Attorney’s office and paid to use its own internal staff to handle the cases.
“We have been receiving numerous phone calls where in women are expressing their levels of frustration that they can not even get an appointment,” said Rosa Naccaroto with the Miami Dade Commission for Women, which reached out to the I-Team alarmed over the frustration and fear they were hearing in the voices of the women calling them.
“These are children that need to be fed everyday and when the non custodial parents stop paying it becomes an immediate situation,” says Naccaroto.
Our I-Team investigation finds help is anything but immediate. But try to get an appointment. You are to call a special Miami-Dade number, and the I-Team did, time and time again. On average it took 30 minutes for an intake worker to answer the phone. When asked why, “Short staffed today,” the worker on the other end of the phone told Gillen.
Gillen met with State Senator Nan Rich who picked up the phone herself and dialed the Miami-Dade Child Support number, only to get a constant busy signal.
“Totally unacceptable,” said Rich who went on to add, “Throughout the rest of the state, my understanding is, its five to eight minutes of a wait. Here you are talking about 20 minutes.”
How long is the wait to get an initial appointment? Three months, Gillen was repeatedly told. In fact, it took Metallus 3 months and dozens of calls to get an appointment; and 3 more months for the State Attorneys Office to petition the court for child support.
That’s just the start of delays. It took Metallus more than a year after beginning the process to get a court hearing and a court order for temporary child support.
“I am frustrated, every judge is frustrated,” said Sandy Karlan, Chief Judge of Family Court who met with Gillen.
On what happened to Metalllus, “It’s unacceptable,” said Karlan.
We brought our findings to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
“We have a serious problem of delays, delays, delays and the ultimate result is the women and children who we hoped to serve, that we want to serve, that we struggle with daily to serve, are not being adequately served,” said Fernandez Rundle.
With a budget of more than $21 million, the office said as of July its handling more than 96,000 cases in a division with 17 attorneys.
“That says to you what?” asked Gillen.
“Overload,” replied Fernandez Rundle.
But our investigation reveals the problems are not new. A report was issued ten years ago by OPPAGA, the accountability arm of the legislature. Back then it raised red flags about Miami-Dade’s low performance levels saying they could put at risk incentive funding for the entire state. The report called for changes and monitoring. Gillen said our investigation found no one ever followed up until we did.
“Now that’s where my problem is. It’s because what you have brought here and what the women are saying out in the community is that they are facing the exact same problems like back in 1999. We need to have a major follow up of what is going on and how we can make this better,” said Rich.