Her clients know her as “the child support lady with the cool truck.”
Chantale Suttle thinks that’s a pretty good description of her and her months-old business, DADvocacy.
For almost 20 years, she’s dealt with child support issues. In law school at the University of Miami, she interned in the child support office, and she went on to handle child support issues as a prosecutor, defense attorney and magistrate judge.
These days, she helps dads navigate the child support system from her mobile office: a bulletproof truck, wrapped with a photo of a man’s muscular, crossed arms, complete with a soundproof consultation room, sports magazines, sodas — and free diapers.
“We do not want to be fancy, golf-playing, mahogany-office kind of lawyers. I’m just a lady you come talk to about child support,” said 42-year old Suttle.
And for teen dads, she does it for free.
“I feel that’s when I can help them the most, and I feel that’s where being part of the child support system can be the most damaging to his future because of the credit bureau reporting,” Suttle said.
Older dads can get help for a flat fee.
Suttle drives the converted 22-passenger van herself. When it’s not parked outside of the child support courthouse at in Downtown Miami, Suttle motors throughout the county to speak at community events.
On a recent evening, the DADvocacy van was parked outside of the Girl Power community center, on Seventh Avenue just off I-95 in Miami. There, Fatherz in the Hood — an organization that provides training and resources for dads — organized an information session for parents frustrated with the child support system.
Suttle stood in front of a semi-circle of seated dads, both young and old, and schooled them about the child support system so that they, hopefully, would not have to see her for services.
Florida’s child support court is different from family court, where parents sort out divorce and domestic violence issues, she explained. Child support court deals only with issues related to collecting child support, which goes often goes directly to the state for social programs — not the mother.
Child support is based on “time-sharing” between parents, and fathers who spend more time with their kids may pay less child support.
“This system is supposed to reward good dads who spend time with their kids,” she told the Fatherz in the Hood group. “On this, we are light-years away from any other state.”
The dads at Fatherz in the Hood chuckled when, using an online calculator, Suttle showed them a huge drop in the amount of child support a dad would have to pay just by spending more overnight time with his kids. In one scenario, the mother actually ended up owing the father child support.
“Any of you know moms paying child support?” an amazed participant asked.
The dads shook their heads, “No.”
Another eye-opening bit of information that Suttle shares with all of her clients — whether they hire her or not — is how to use the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts online filing system to check on their own cases’ status and any upcoming hearings. Her truck has a hotspot with internet access to check this information on the road, and she also checks to make sure she doesn’t have a conflict in the case — such as having ruled on any issues involving the mother while she served in her other legal roles.
She asked the Fatherz in the Hood dads whether any of them had known they could check on their own cases. There was silence in the room.
“This is a huge service we provide,” Suttle told the Miami Herald. “I want people to know what’s going on in their own intimate life of their children, their money and their time.”
A lot of Suttle’s time representing dads is spent cleaning up errors on behalf of the state, which can take away a dad’s driver’s license or passport, or seize his bank account, for supposed non-payment. And it can be done without ever even going to court — the state lets fathers know with just a letter in the mail.
“I have about six clients right now who have paid on time and perfectly for over a decade, and still their driver’s license has been suspended and/or their bank account has been seized,” she said.
The problem usually lies in the state’s computer system, she said.
“It shows old debt, so the computer doesn’t recognize his compliance,” Suttle said.
In another case, Suttle is helping a dad get back access to his bank account after the state took it away. The dad took over full-time care of his kid after the child’s mother moved to another state. Despite letters to the state from the mother that showed she would waive her right to the child support while the dad takes care of the kid, the state came after the dad, anyway.
“I would say every single one of my cases has an error like that, bigger or smaller,” Suttle said.
She takes pains to point that out, because she doesn’t take-on cases of deadbeat dads.
“I don’t represent anybody who doesn’t take care of his kids” she told the Fatherz in the Hood Group. “I represent good dads.”
After the session, she invited the dads to her truck. She handed out diapers and wipes, and logs for fathers to track how much time they spend with their kids.
Fred Decade, 20, doesn’t have any kids of his own, and the night’s talk convinced him he didn’t want any, any time soon.
“I learned not to have kids,” he said. “It will make you go broke.”
Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.