Two deputies pulled up to a caramel-colored townhome as the sun rose Thursday, planning to take into custody a father who had failed to pay child support.
A woman at the door, her voice escalating, didn't want to let the deputies in, saying the father wasn't there. But with a judge's order granting them access, Broward Sheriff's deputies John Milligan and Alex Beer entered the residence and found Leonardo Sanchez in the balcony of an upstairs bedroom.
Sanchez's arrest was one of seven Thursday aimed at parents who haven't paid child support, part of an effort to force compliance. Deputies fanned out across the county in teams of two to attempt serving 60 arrest warrants and more than 50 restraining orders during Operation Family Matters — the first sweep of its kind for the agency.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office conducted a similar sweep in October as part of a statewide four-week sweep.
Arrestees are not criminally charged, but a civil order requires them to make child-support payments or ultimately risk facing a jail sentence for failing to follow a court order. The main goal is to get moms and dads to pay up, Milligan said.
"We're not treating them as criminals, but we are taking them into custody," he said.
Bonds to get out of jail were set at the same amounts arrestees owed in child support. Those amounts on Thursday ranged from $30 to $3,160, the Broward Sheriff's Office said.
The state Department of Revenue is responsible for the child support enforcement program and partners with law enforcement agencies to get non-paying parents to comply. During the department's fiscal year 2013, there were 60,186 open child support cases in Broward and 39,448 in Palm Beach County, the department said.
Statewide, only 10 percent of the child support collected by the state is paid voluntarily, the department said. The rest is received as a result of the agency's enforcement actions.
Among the enforcement tools are driver's license suspension, property liens or taking support money directly out of paychecks.
From the back seat of a patrol car, Sanchez, 29, said taking him into custody was not going to help his 6-year-old son. He was now at risk of losing his new job as a cook, he said.
"Listen, the whole system is messed up. I won't make the job, which in turn won't allow me to make the payment for my child," he said. "And once again, will get me to this endless circle."
The father had fallen behind by $668 in payments for his son, officials said.
Sanchez said he has paid some of the child support owed, but he does not earn enough to make the monthly payments.
He also said he has been embroiled in a battle over visitation rights. Sanchez's mother played a video clip on her phone that showed the boy: "Daddy, I miss you," he said.
"When does it end? When does this cycle end?" Sanchez asked. "It never ends. My life has been ruined."
The operation included the sheriff's crime-suppression teams and civil division, which is comprised of sworn officers whose tasks include serving arrest warrants, restraining orders and eviction notices.
Rounding up non-complying parents is unpredictable, so deputies have criminal backgrounds in hand as they approach residences. Some of the warrants are rubber-stamped with the word "caution" in red for individuals who may have prior arrests for dangerous offenses.
"You just don't know what waits behind the door," said Capt. Audrey Jones, who oversees the sheriff's civil division.
"They're from all walks of life. We have respondents that can't even feed themselves, and we have respondents who are capable and they have just refused to [pay child support]," she said.
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