A hostile audience booed a single mother Monday evening when she described the hardship of rearing her daughter on a $25-a-month child support payment. The same crowd cheered wildly when a non-custodial father waved his shoe in the air, angrily declaring that the men in Utah State Prison have more rights than non-custodial parents in Utah.
And women married to men paying child support for children from a first or second marriage hissed at members of a Child Support Task Force that is considering a proposal that would place first-marriage children as a financial priority.The public reaction to Utah's first proposed uniform child support guidelines was emotional and intense.
Security guards monitored an anxious crowd of more than 350 persons in the University of Utah College of Law Moot Courtroom. With the crowd exceeding capacity, many were left standing in hallways and sitting in aisles during the 5-hour hearing.
Fifty parents, a dozen judges, several representatives of child advocate groups and attorneys addressed the emotional issues of divorce, children and money.
The crowd resembled fans at a rowdy athletic competition. Single mothers, who would obviously benefit from increased payments, seemed pitted against non-custodial parents who resent the courts taking away more of their money.
The most vocal majority were non-custodial fathers and the wives of second marriages. This organized group accused task force members of being "self-serving and gender biased (against men)." With indignation, they questioned the committee's authority and demanded that the support issue be considered by elected legislators not the judiciary.
Higher payments will result in "creating bankruptcy and violence" in homes of divorced parents, one woman warned.
"If all Utah children are equal, why should my children have fewer rights than my husband's children by his broken marriage?" another woman asked.
Currently, no guidelines exist for Utah judges in deciding child support. Judges concede vast inconsistency and unfairness in their arbitrary awards. After a 10-month study of 42 states with guidelines, the task force is recommending a uniform schedule.
The new guidelines consider the gross income of each natural parent. The premise is that non-custodial and custodial parents have a responsibility to support their children. The amount differs with the age of the children, based on data showing it is more expensive to rear a 16-year-old than a 2-year-old.
Judge Judith M. Billings, who heads the task force, told the audience, "The courts were setting child support below the poverty level and there's no disputing that."
She conceded that two major issues enforcing visitation rights and collection of child support were not addressed by the judicial task force. These matters will likely be considered by other social agencies.
Under the new guidelines, support from non-custodial parents will increase, on average, between 20 to 30 percent. Not more than 50 percent of the non-custodial parent's gross income will be awarded.
Representing Utah's Court of Appeals, Judge Richard C. Davidson endorsed the guidelines, saying they would help judges "do a more intelligent job. Joe should pay the same as Paul."
Third District Judge Michael Murphy conveyed the support of his district's judges, but Second District Judge David Roth, who represents judges presiding in courts north of Salt Lake, voiced opposition.
Roth said the guidelines set support "unrealistically high. It's not how much you set support at, it's how much you can collect."
Explaining why single mothers were outnumbered at the hearing by those opposing the guidelines, one young woman said, "A lot of us couldn't afford babysitters. If single mothers could come here tonight with their children, the guidelines would receive overwhelming approval. Children need the guidelines."