Opinions varied, but all were strong Wednesday night in a hearing on proposed guidelines for child support payments.
The meeting was organized by the Utah Child Support Task Force, a 17-member group of judges, lawyers, social service administrators and other specialists. Seven members were at the Orem hearing. The task force was assembled a year ago by the Utah Judicial Council to study a standardized set of guidelines that would determine each parent's financial responsibility for children following divorce.
"Utah judges all act responsibly but come to different conclusions about how much money it takes to support a child," said task force chairwoman Judith Billings, a state Court of Appeals judge. "It can seem arbitrary and unfair. The guidelines will set standards based on the income of each parent and the ages of the children involved. There still will be exceptions, but the guidelines should apply in about 85 percent of the cases."
Billings said government studies show an average court award is $199 a month for 1.8 children.
"I can't quite picture what 1.8 children would look like. Can you?
"But it takes $273 a month to maintain 1.8 children at a poverty level. Our child-support awards are a national tragedy. And divorce is increasing geometrically, so the problem isn't going to go away."
The proposed guidelines would apply regardless of the sex of the custodial parent. Parents' gross income would be totaled, then judges would refer to a chart to determine how much child support is appropriate for parents in their income bracket.
The chart was devised by researchers who studied how much married parents spend on children of various ages and how much divorced parents spend. The researchers assumed parents would want to share their quality of life with children rather than just providing a survival allowance.
Each parent would contribute the same percentage of support as his income is of the total income of the two parents.
It is the increased support schedule that bothered most audience members in the Orem City Center.
"Utah has the lowest per capita income, according to one study," said Mike Clay, a non-custodial parent. "We don't have the money to lavish on our children. But the cost of living is lower too. I don't see how figures developed for another state can work for Utah. We need our own study before guidelines can be put into effect."
He also argued that payment should be set on a case-by-case system. "Our Constitution guarantees us due process."
Others were worried about a section in the guidelines that says additional children from second families should not affect the support levels ordered for children of the first family.
Laurel Huff said her husband pays so much support to his children living with his ex-wife that the children from his current marriage suffer.
"If these guidelines are put into effect, we won't have enough money to live. You are deciding first children deserve more money than later children. We have a right to have more children. Our children have a right to live. Children whose parents aren't divorced deserve protection too."
Ryan Stafford, non-custodial father of four, said the heavy financial burden for parents in high-income brackets would not benefit the children.
"The extra money will probably go to the ex-spouse, not the children. And the higher payments take away the incentive for trying to improve your financial situation."
Billings thanked the speakers for their input, and said task force members would discuss citizens' concerns from this and other hearings when the entire group meets in May. She said the group hopes to put a set of guidelines into effect this fall or early in 1989.