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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

April 19th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The Minnesota House of Representatives passed equal-parenting legislation by a vote of 80 – 53 yesterday.  A companion bill is still before the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting action.  Read about it here (Hometown Source, 4/18/12).

HF 322 provides for a legal presumption that each parent have at least 45.1% of the parenting time post-divorce.  Like all legal presumptions, this one can be rebutted in a number of different ways.  For example, a showing of unfitness or a proven history of domestic abuse or child abuse would rebut the equal parenting presumption. 

Likewise, parents are still free, under the terms of the bill, to agree between themselves about how to divide custody and parenting time.  Indeed, in most states well over 90% of divorce and custody cases are agreed to by the parties.

As we’ve seen with testimony before committees hearing equal parenting bills, debate in the Minnesota House demonstrated that the opposition to equal parenting doesn’t have much to say in response to advocates for children and fathers who point out the benefits of keeping both parents actively involved in children’s lives post divorce.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, an attorney, called it a “radical change” of law.

Another attorney, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, argued the custody standard in the bill was too rigid. It would either produce shared custody or have one parent win 100 percent custody, she argued.

One attempt to amend the bill created an exemption to the presumption of joint physical custody for mothers breast feeding children.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, argued the healthful benefits of breast feeding could be diluted by the impracticalities of separating a mother from her child…

Besides criticizing the legislation for showing insensitivity to spouses caught in abusive relationships — often these cases are hard to prove, argued one Democratic lawmaker — the bill was also criticized for cost.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFL-Crystal, said fiscal notes for the bill show it costing several million dollars in a few years time but funding is not furnished in the legislation.

So there you have it.  Argument 1: the bill is “radical.”  Note that current law under which 35% of American children of divorce have no contact with their fathers is not radical according to the lawyer making the claim.  If passing a law that would allow children the active parenting of their fathers post-divorce is radical, then that makes me a radical.  I’m all for it.  The overwhelming weight of social science must be radical too, since decades of research into the matter show that children do better with two parents in their lives.

Breast feeding?  I’m all for that too, but the idea that Dad should be denied contact with his child because little Andy or Jenny is breast feeding is just silly.  Working mothers who want to give their children their own milk routinely resort to the pump, and so it would be if this bill is signed into law.

As to the cost of the bill, it may impose a minor cost – some $1.3 million per year – spread over all the family courts in the state.  Add to that the fact that it’s doubtful it’ll even cost that much and you have an argument against keeping both parents involved in their children’s lives that’s frankly not worth making.  Anyone who truly thinks that enhancing the well-being of children in the many ways HF 322 would isn’t worth $1.3 million a year to the people of Minnesota needs to think again.  Into the bargain, over time the savings in crime reduction, psychological problems, educational problems, etc. provided by reduced fatherlessness will far outweigh the cost to courts.

Likewise, the criticism of the bill for ”insensitivity to spouses caught in abusive relationships” that are “often hard to prove,” would be incredible in a reasonable world.  It’s one of the best parts of the legislation that, in order to rebut the presumption of equal parenting with a claim of domestic abuse, a parent has to actually prove her case.  In other words, the bill does away with the practice of allowing mere allegations to separate fathers from children.  For the House member’s information, that’s called Due Process of Law, and it’s long past time family courts were required to provide it.

Research by Douglas Allen and Margaret Brinig shows that claims of abuse are the main way in which fathers are separated from their children.  Family courts are infamous for issuing orders separating fathers and children based on nothing more than Mom’s claims of abuse.  Countless children have suffered as a result.  As but one example, consider little Sky Metalwala, who was either abducted by someone at his mother’s direction or was killed by her.  Where was Sky’s father, Solomon Metalwala while all this was going on?  He was ordered to have no contact with his children by family Commissioner Jacqueline Jeske based on no objective evidence of abuse.

Put simply, had HF 322 been the law of Washington State at the time, Solomon Metalwala likely could have saved Sky from whatever fate his mother had decreed for him.  Because she would have been unable to prove her claim of abuse against Solomon, he would have had half parenting time – probably enough to thwart the conspiracy to abduct or kill the child.

Meanwhile, supporters of HF 322 had their say. 

A child custody bill supporters portray as placing parents on an equal playing field passed the House on Wednesday, April 18 but not before lengthy debate.

“This bill goes a long way in giving equal access (to their children) to both parents,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, after watching her bill pass the House on a bipartisan 80 to 53 vote.

Scott’s bill creates a presumption of joint legal and physical shared parenting — “equal” defined by the bill as 45.1 percent of custodial time — for the courts to use in determining child custody.

Parents have the freedom to work out whatever custodial agreement they want, explained Scott. But in custody cases without resolution going before the courts, judges often set a minimum 25 percent custodial time for one parent, she said.

It’s simply better, Scott argues, for the health and well being of children that both parents play equal roles in raising them…

The health of children and families, said Scott in describing why she’s carrying the legislation,  is really a diagnosis of the health of the state.

Scott and other House members have paid a visit to Governor Mark Dayton to educate him about the bill.  Whether Dayton would sign it if it’s passed by the Senate remains to be seen.

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