A member of the Child Support Task Force reported threats of physical harassment and a legislator warned that incumbent politicians "all over Utah are feeling the heat" over a controversial proposal to increase support payments of divorced parents.
Recognizing the political pressure surrounding the explosive child-support issue, task force members voted Tuesday to compromise an earlier position. The compromise: Higher payment scales of child support will apply only to divorces that occur after (and if) the new guidelines are approved by the Judicial Council. The guidelines will not apply retroactively to existing orders, those ordered before the guidelines may become effective.Recommendations of the task force will be presented to the council in a public meeting June 27. The meeting is scheduled to be held in Room 303 of the State Capitol.
Sen. Lyle W. Hillyard, R-Logan, a task force member, told the committee that in this election year they would lose the battle if they did not agree to give up the idea of making new guidelines retroactive. Legislators would likely take action to repeal the move because of its unpopularity.
The debate among the 17-member group reflected the emotional spectrum behind the no-win effort of trying to please custodial parents struggling to rear children on below-poverty-level payments and non-custodial parents who feel it would be unfair to change payments they have planned their finances around.
Several of the members expressed deep regret that the compromise would leave thousands of Utah children, now being reared by divorced mothers living in poverty, without hope.
With tears in her eyes, Bev Purrington, who represents an organization called Utah Children, said, "It's clear to me this protects non-custodial parents, but children will continue to be raised at a poverty level. I think this is the politically expedient thing to do but I will not say we're doing the right thing." She voted against the compromise.
Third District Judge Frank G. Noel voted in favor of the compromise, saying he was not reacting to political pressure but to reason.
Because the new guidelines will not be applied to existing orders, that does not leave custodial parents living on low support without a remedy, the judge said. If a custodial parent believes he or she is not receiving a fair payment, the court may be petitioned to rehear the case. The new guidelines may be used as part of the evidence to convince the judge that the award is inordinately low. The guidelines would be considered in the "totality" of the case.
But Purrington argued that low-income mothers will be harmed by the decision. Welfare parents can't afford to hire attorneys to take their cases to court for reconsideration.
Based on its decision not to make the guidelines retroactive, the task force consequently decided that new guidelines will not apply to those who currently have a second family and are paying child support to children by a first marriage.
The new guidelines will apply only to those with children who will divorce after June 27 and may eventually remarry.
However, another more sensitive aspect of the second-marriage issue evoked emotional debate.
Many task force members referred to the intense criticism hurled at them by non-custodial parents during recent public hearings. At those hearings, non-custodial fathers protested the task force's decision to place children of a first marriage as a financial priority. They bitterly accused task force members of discriminating against children of second marriages.
Defending the position of providing for children of first families, Irene Fisher of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center said, "No one is saying that children of second-marriage families don't count as much, but if you have an obligation to children of a first marriage, then you need to be responsible."
Task force members decided that support payment of children by a first marriage will not be affected by children of a subsequent marriage to provide custodial parents with consistency. For instance, if a man chooses to remarry and have more children, he must do so with the understanding that his financial responsibility to his children by a first marriage remains unchanged.
Payments will be also be based solely on the incomes of the natural parents. The income of a new spouse will not be considered.
In response to comment by the public, the task force continues to scrutinize other issues of child support, including lowering the amount of payment in the middle- and upper-level incomes to compensate non-custodial parents who do not receive tax breaks.
Final recommendations will be available to the public before the June 27 meeting.