Tony Gonzalez still calls his 15-year-old daughter "daddy's little girl."
They listen to heavy metal music and play cards together. He takes her to meet friends at the movies and proudly calls her an excellent swimmer.
But Gonzalez can't do some things he considers fatherly duties, such as giving Sandra an allowance or taking her shopping.
And after losing his job of 20 years in August, Gonzalez can't afford to pay Sandra's mother the $221 per month he owes in child support.
"It's heartbreaking," said Gonzalez, 42. "I don't want to be known as a deadbeat dad."
Gonzalez's story is a common one heard in Stanislaus County Superior Court's Department 16.
More and more parents, mostly fathers, are crowding the Modesto courtroom to plead with a judge to reduce their child support payments.
They talk about salary cuts and homes in foreclosure. Unemployment rates, which spiked at 19.2 percent countywide in March, make it nearly impossible for some to keep up with their payments.
Three years ago, Stanislaus County withheld $1.5 million in unemployment benefits to cover the child support obligations of parents who don't have custody.
Unemployment benefits now make up $4.8 million of the county's child support take.
In years past, family law attorneys usually heard from parents who wanted more child support taken from their former partners.
Now, it's the reverse.
"It's people who have longtime jobs who are losing 10 to 15 percent of their pay or are on unemployment right now," said E.F. Cash-Dudley, a family law specialist in Modesto. "It's having a profound effect. We see a number of families that are just barely surviving."
'Hammer' used less
Tamara Thomas, assistant director of the county's child support agency, said her office has taken a more empathetic approach as she sees parents with a history of consistently paying child support fall on hard times.
"It's been less of the hammer approach," Thomas said.
The "hammer" can be as much as 75 days in jail for repeated failure to pay child support.
Child support payments can vary widely based on a family's unique situation, but a parent can expect to pay up to one-third of his or her income to support one child and as much as half of his or her pay for three or more children.
Nine out of 10 noncustodial parents in Stanislaus County are men, and they have been disproportionately affected by the recession because of the hit to male-dominated jobs in construction and manufacturing.
Trying to be fair
On Thursday morning, Court Commissioner Richard Allen listened as a man talked about his trouble looking for jobs installing tile and carpet.
"I can't find work," said the man, who owed $100 a month in child support. Allen calls this the "can level," the amount a person should be able to scrounge up in child support by collecting and recycling aluminum cans.
Allen, who has presided over child support hearings for nine years, said the recession has sent people of all socioeconomic levels to his courtroom to seek relief.
He's even seen real estate and dot-com employees who once made six figures begging for a break from their payments.
He said his decisions are sometimes "heart wrenching."
"It makes it really tough," Allen said. "You know on one hand you have a child that has needs. That's why we're there. But you still have to be fair."
Outside the courtroom, Gonzalez said he is frustrated by his job search but vowed to keep looking on "every dot-com Web site known to man" to find work. He lives with his parents in Gilroy after a stint living on the street.
"I accepted my responsibility as a father ever since my child was born," Gonzalez said.
After all, he said, "That's my kid."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.