A mother who denies her ex-husband visitation rights may find herself serving a mandatory sentence behind bars, having child-support payments placed in an unobtainable trust fund or losing custody of her children.
Those penalties were presented to the Judiciary Interim Committee Wednesday as proposed solutions to a problem without any cure-all solutions - the denial of visitation rights of divorced fathers.Introducing proposed SB114 to the committee before a crowd of anxious custodial and non-custodial parents, Lyle W. Hillyard, R-Logan, said, "There are no easy answers. But, we've got to come up with some solutions because of what's happening to children of divorce."
It's "terrible" that a father may have his check garnished to meet child-support payments but has no idea where his children are living, he said.
"It's important for children to have access to the non-custodial parent. Denial causes severe, emotional damage to children."
The bill states that if a custodial parent (usually the mother) is denying visitation, the court may put child-support payments made by the non-custodial parent into a trust fund with the Office of Recovery Services until the mother makes time available to compensate for any denied visitation.
While many complain that withholding child-support payments punishes the child, the child also is punished by being denied a relationship with the father, Hillyard told committee members. A mother can regain full payment at any time, simply by allowing visitation.
The proposed legislation specifies that a non-custodial parent doesn't have the right to visitation if physical or emotional abuse of the child occurs during visits or "if the child is treated in a manner that would reasonably cause the child to avoid visitation."
Advocating the idea of putting support payments in a trust fund, David S. Dolowitz, executive member of the Family Law Section of the Utah State Bar, said, "This state does enforce support payments, but does absolutely nothing to enforce visitation. Many Utah fathers are paying support and don't know where their children are."
He gave an example of a custodial mother who illegally took her child and moved to Italy to avoid having any contact with the child's father.
The other two alternatives - enforcing a mandatory jail term and changing custody - were proposed by the Office of Recovery Services.
The recovery office opposes the trust-fund concept because it could put the state in jeopardy of receiving millions in federal money. Holding up child-support payments violates federal regulations, said James Kidder, director of child-support services of the division.
"I don't think controlling money is as much of a leverage as changed custody would be," said Kidder.
Concerned that denying child-support payments would hurt children, Family Law Attorney Sharon Donovan urged the committee members to "put more teeth into existing laws."
A 3rd District judge recently penalized a mother $750 for fleeing the state with her children. "That kind of penalty would get someone's attention," she said.
State Court Administrator Bill Vickrey told the committee that during several public hearings on new proposed child-support guidelines, a main complaint by non-custodial parents was the objection to paying higher support without any guarantees of visitation.