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Lifestyles and New Wives Should Come After Kids : Parenting: California was too slow to adopt uniform child-support guidelines. Now some fathers would weaken the system to keep their fancy cars.

June 13, 1993|Kay Mills | Kay Mills, author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" (NAL/Dutton), writes frequently on social policy issues.

Under threat of a $50-million fine, California became, in 1991, the last state to comply with a federal requirement for uniform guidelines for calculating child-support pay ments. Two years later, a vocal group, mainly composed of divorced fathers and their new wives, is complaining that the system is unfair and, for some, a road to bankruptcy. They and their legislators are pushing legislation to weaken the guidelines. The children's interests, meanwhile, go begging.

Under the old system, child-support payments varied, sometimes greatly, from county to county. One result was that many children in California were more likely to be poor than in states where a standard formula guaranteed higher payments.

To achieve equity within states--and to try to generate more child support--Congress wanted uniform guidelines with enough give to account for individual situations. The question is how much flexibility should be permitted.

In setting child-support payments, judges plug the variables--income of both parents, number of children, taxes--into a computer formula, then adjust for medical and child-care expenses, as well as for the number of children from other marriages being supported by the parent who doesn't have custody. The share of child support each parent pays is determined, in part, by how much money each makes.

But in California, as in one or two other states, there also is a "time-sharing" variable when the child doesn't spend half the time with mother and half the time with father. Briefly put, child-support payments are supposed to be less for parents who don't have custody but who regularly visit their children. Nobody wants to discourage parental visits but, as a result of this stipulation, some parents have ended up paying less child support.

Last year, the Legislature changed the formula so these non-custodial parents, usually fathers, could not reduce their support payments simply by occasionally showing up on weekends. Women's groups successfully argued that since there's no hard information on how much money is spent when parent visits child, children were receiving less total support.

Some fathers' groups complained that this approach raised their payments substantially, so they have gone back to the Legislature to weaken the guidelines. Several bills that would accomplish this are under consideration, with one of them, AB 1400, scheduled for a hearing in a key Assembly committee this week.

The Coalition of Parent Support backs AB 1400, which is sponsored by Assemblyman Trice Harvey (R-Bakersfield). The measure would phase in the new and higher child-support payments, supposedly in the interests of fairness. Ostensibly, it is designed to protect the financial stability of non-custodial parents who assume a new lifestyle--say, a new mortgage or car payments--after divorce, then face higher child-support payments. In effect, it would deny kids money they need today.

Dave Whitman, coalition president, also contends the current guidelines have reduced incentives for either parent to earn more because mothers lose child-support dollars if their income increases, and fathers pay more if their earnings go up. He sees more efforts ahead to protect parents from bankruptcy because of higher support payments.

To be sure, the higher payments mandated by the new guidelines seem to favor mothers who have custody. But, after all, they need the money to pay for food, shoes, clothing and school supplies.

Still, if you just listen to the talk shows and read politicians' mail, you might conclude that this is strictly a fathers' issue. But mothers and their friends rightly argue that phasing in the guidelines, as AB 1400 would do, would rob children of money they need now, not two years from now. "We hear heartbreaking stories every day from mothers struggling to keep their children fed and clothed while the other parent is off buying a new pickup truck," says Betty Nordwind, executive director of the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law in Leimert Park and a coordinator of efforts to keep the guidelines as they are.

The new guidelines seem to have boosted California's rank in terms of the size of child-support payments. A study by Diane Dodson of the Women's Legal Defense Fund shows that the state is now among the top five in the nation.

The issue will probably never be resolved amicably, since divorce and child custody are difficult matters even among people who remain halfway friendly. But Wendy Lazarus, vice president for policy of Children Now, warns that "too often, child support is seen as a subject relating to feuding parents. We often forget the whole purpose for setting up (support)."

Clearly, more than money is required to make a good home for a child. But less money for kids as a general policy principle is absurd. Yet, that is the principle the Legislature is being asked to put into law. Far better to lock everybody--parents and politicians--up in an attic room in Sacramento until they realize kids--not new lives or new wives--come first. Don't touch those guidelines.

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