To me the system doesn't work. I'm not denying that the baby needs money. But you have to look at the ability of the mother and father to pay, and I don't think that's being done," said the 34-year-old Montgomery County resident.

Mark is the ex-husband of Emily, whose troubles collecting child support payments were reported recently in The Washington Post. He makes $14,600 annually and has been ordered by the court to pay Emily $80 a week, or $4,160 a year, toward the support of their 5-year-old daughter. It is an amount Mark says he cannot afford to pay on top of old debts from a bankrupt business, attorney's fees and $240 a month rent. (Mark and Emily are not the real names of those involved.)

The problem of setting an equitable amount for child support payments is the bane of domestic relations courts everywhere and is compounded in jurisdictions like Montgomery County with a population of diverse economic means.

Locating parents and collecting payments has been the focus of nationwide efforts since a 1975 amendment to the Social Security Act that established the Child Support Enforcement Program.

Some areas, like Prince George's County, have automated their collection systems so that a missed payment results immediately in a notice to the delinquent parent. The state's Department of Human Resources is preparing legislation that calls for an automatic wage lien on child support payments. State Del. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) is sponsoring a bill that would require all payments to be made through the court instead of directly between the parties, and Del David L. Scull (D-Montgomery) has a bill that would have employers withhold child support payments with income tax.

A new Maryland law will take any state tax refunds due delinquent parents where the custodial parent is receiving public assistance, and transfer the state tax refund to the state's Department of Human Resources.

But while collection has received considerable attention, the setting of the awards remains the court's jurisdiction and the judge's prerogative.

"We've discussed from time to time some kind of formula but in a jurisdiction of this kind, with the diversities of backgrounds, family circumstance, family means, you just can't grind it out like that," said Montgomery County Circuit Court Administrative Judge David Cahoon.

Scull believes, however, that "we have to reduce the court's discretion and make it [the amount of the award] more predictable. As it is now, it creates uncertainties and leads to expensive litigation."

"If you took the last 100 cases in which we have awarded child support, in 95 percent of the cases one party would say the award was too low and one would say it was too high," said Mongtomery County domestic relations master William Turner. Turner is one of four domestic relations masters appointed by the Circuit Court to conduct preliminary hearings, set temporary support awards and handle uncontested divorces.

Scull believes the awards are too low compared to the income level of the parties. Others say that many of the awards are high but necessarily so because the cost of raising a child in Montgomery County.

"Two households are more expensive than one and sometimes it's a matter of financial impossibility to meet the expenses of both," said Turner. "So both have to cut corners. But it's hard to put yourself in the position of what should be cut. The second winter coat? The vacation? We hope to arrive at a ballpark figure and let the parties worry about how the money is used."

"It's irrational to believe two people can split without changing their standards of living. But more sacrifice is expected of the visiting parent. The courts are not willing to say that all parties have to undergo adjustments," said Bruce Burrows of University Park, vice president of a group called Fathers United for Equal Rights.

The law does not differentiate according to sex, emphasizes Judge Calhoon, and both parties are responsible for the support of the child to the extent they are able to pay.

Burrows has custody of his two children and receives $300 a month in child support payments from his ex-wife. "We sat down and figured the approximate cost of raising two children in Prince George's County at $700 a month and then split that because our salaries were comparable," he said.

Burrows and his ex-wife reached an agreement before the court hearing on the divorce.

A Montgomery County resident whose child support award was ordered by the court makes $32,000, has custody of his 17-year-old son and has been ordered to pay his ex-wife, who makes $16,000 annually, $740 a month toward the support of their two daughters, aged 12 and 14.

"I just hurt all over as a result of this thing. I really do. I feel like I'm imprisoned with child support. I'm not even given the right to be a person. My son and my daughters are the most important thing to me and I can't do a proper job," he said.

"I can't buy them a single thing for Christmas. I don't have the money. I can't do it and it tears me apart. Child support is a way for my ex-wife to raise her standard of living."

"You cannot send money to the children without the ex-wife sharing it. The children can't eat steak while the mother eats hamburger," said Barbara Bergmann, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.