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May 27th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Governor Mark Dayton has vetoed the shared parenting bill that was passed by the Minnesota House and Senate.  Read about it here (MPR, 5/24/12).

Pro-shared parenting forces have been trying for 13 years to get a bill passed, succeeding for the first time this year, only to have Dayton veto it under pressure from divorce lawyers and the domestic violence industry.

The bill was modest to say the least.  Minnesota law currently calls for each parent to have a minimum of 25% of the parenting time post-divorce.  The only change this year’s shared parenting bill would have made was to increase that benchmark to 35%.  But, as we’ve seen so often, even the slightest improvement in fathers’ rights to their children and children’s rights to their fathers is too much for certain entrenched interests.

Their public statements alone show the bankruptcy of their opposition to the bill.  First, there’s the claim that the law would have tied judges’ hands.

Opponents of the bill said Minnesota courts already have flexibility, and most parents agree on the shared parenting that makes the most sense for their families.

“What you’re talking about are those cases in which people don’t otherwise agree,” said Mike Dittberner, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. His organization and the Family Law Section of the Minnesota Bar opposed the bill.

As Dittberner well knows, being a divorce lawyer, that’s bunk.  Of course most people agree on custody issues.  That’s because most people don’t have the money to disagree.  Disagreement means lawyers and protracted litigation over the issue.  Most people can’t do that and don’t want to.  In Washington State, the only state that scrupulously tracks divorce and custody figures, well over 90% of cases are agreed on by the parties.  An extra 10% parenting time for Dad wouldn’t have changed that a bit.  What it would have done is give Dad more time with his kids and Mom more time to work, earn and save.  So let’s be clear; what the law would have done in some 90% of cases would have been to allow fathers and children to be together more.

There are also contested custody matters.  How would the new law affect parents in those cases?  Other than letting Mom know that, all things being equal, Dad would be entitled to more time with the kids than under existing law, I don’t see what would change.  Would the law make parents more adversarial?  Less?  I don’t see the argument for either position.

And of course, since the only thing that would have changed is the percentage of time fathers would spend with their kids, the notion that judges would lose discretion is just flat wrong.  The bill was identical to existing law that Dittberner and the other divorce lawyers in the state pronounce themselves perfectly happy with except for that 10%.

Then of course there’s the domestic violence industry that burned the midnight oil opposing the bill.  Why?  Well, their stated reasons don’t add up.  The idea that giving fathers and children 10% more time with each other than they have now would put children at risk of harm is again just flat wrong.  As large amounts of data show, mothers commit about twice as much child abuse and neglect in this country as do fathers.  That information comes from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.  It gathers data from state child welfare agencies every year, and every year those data show mothers doing about 40% of the child abuse and neglect and fathers a bit less than 20%.

But of course facts aren’t the point here.  The point is power.  Those opposed to fathers’ rights have always wanted Mom in control of the children and Dad in the position of payer.  If they had any principled reasons for opposing fathers’ rights to children and children’s rights to fathers, they’d have mentioned them by now, but they haven’t.  What they have done is recyled long-discredited notions about domestic violence and frankly false claims about bills like the Minnesota one.

And since the point is power, I may as well say again that now is the time for fathers’ rights advocates to exert ours.  Several of the articles about Dayton’s veto had photos of fathers picketing the governor’s office.  Protest is fine.  So is all the excellent work done by Molly Olson and the Center for Parental Responsibility whose tireless work almost made this bill reality.

But here’s the deal: fathers’ rights advocates have had right on our side from the beginning.  Honesty, decency, gender equality and social science all demand that fathers and mothers be equal in family court and that children have the greatest possible relationship with each post-divorce.  But despite decades of trying, it never happens.  And there’s a reason it never happens; the powers that be have no fear of fathers’ power.  The simple fact is that we come to elected officials hat in hand.  We come with plenty of good, sound arguments, but we’re essentially asking office holders to listen to the better angels of their nature, to vote for the right and decent thing.  My guess is that most of them would like to do that, but most elected officials need to see not only the right of voting a certain way, but also the electoral wisdom of doing so.  That is, they balance the votes they’re likely to lose against the ones they’re likely to win and act accordingly.

And to date, every one of those people knows full well that, right as fathers’ advoactes may be, they have nothing to fear from them.  They know to a certainty that fathers will be content to once again ask nicely next year and once again be told “no.”  And when they’re told “no,” there will be small protests by fathers and outrage in the blogosphere, but nothing else.

It’s time for that to change.  It’s time for those who value fathers’ rights to children and children’s rights to fathers to target those who vote the wrong way at the ballot box.  It’s time for electoral politics to become coterminus with custody law.  Vote the right way on shared parenting and you get my vote.  Vote the wrong way and you don’t.  Period.

But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Those who vote the wrong way need to know why you’re voting against them.  Those who vote the right way need to know why you’re on their side.  That starts with candidate questionnaires that focus on custody laws.  Those will tell you how a candidate says he/she will vote on an issue like shared parenting, but they also do something else.  Those questionnaires show the candidate that there are folks out there for whom the issue of child custody matters.

In Minnesota, House and Senate members already have track records on shared parenting.  Plenty of them voted against it, and those people should be targeted for defeat in November.  Minnesotans should look carefully at each of those officials and figure out which ones are vulnerable.  Once a few of those are identified, they should be attacked in every medium for being “anti-family,” “anti-dad,” “anti-child.”  Fathers and mothers who have lost children in the existing system should give videotaped testimony none too subtly connecting the official’s vote on shared parenting to the loss of his/her child.

You get the picture.  The fact is advocates for fathers and children don’t even need to win those contests.  As long as they throw a good scare into some elected officials, it’s all but guaranteed to have a salutary effect on them when it comes time to vote on shared parenting again.  Of course if shared parenting advocates actually manage to turn out of office a few people who voted the wrong way, so much the better.  The point is that advocates for fathers and children have got to start playing the game.  Until they do, they’re just well-intended chumps wondering why elected officials don’t vote our way.

How about it Minnesota?  After 13 years are you ready to start winning for a change?

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