November 10, 2015
By Ned Holstein, MD, MS, Founder and Acting Executive Director, National Parents Organization
On August 1, 2015, a new and better custody statute went into effect in Minnesota. This was due in large measure to the tireless efforts of activists Molly Olson and Brian Ulrich of the Center for Parental Responsibility (CPR). The story of how this came to pass is a long and interesting one, and may hold lessons for you in your state.
Brian recalls that at one point, a known opposing legislator “turned around and took the stairs instead of getting in the elevator with us.” At another time, he felt, “You’re just wasting your time. We were so entirely opposed. I had seen the lobbying. I had seen the emotions of the presentations at the committee hearings, the unpleasant glances, the unwillingness to sit down and talk before that. It was just a recipe for failure.” Yet not long after, the vote in favor of a better custody bill was 121-0 in the House, and 61-3 in the Minnesota Senate.
Back in 2012, after many years of tireless lobbying that had not borne fruit, and after beginning to feel that the efforts were futile, CPR advocated a bill that would have required judges to presume a nearly equal split of parenting time, unless there had been serious domestic abuse. This encountered stiff opposition in the Minnesota Senate. Eventually, a compromise was reached, which lowered the presumptive minimum parenting time to 35%. This compromise passed the full Minnesota Legislature, and Molly and Brian had reason to believe their years of lobbying had finally paid off.
In a devastating setback, however, Governor Mark Dayton vetoed the legislation in May, 2012, calling on opposing groups to work together — even though that is what they had already been doing.
Many would have given up at that point. In fact, Molly and Brian were reluctant to join a “dialogue group" put together six months later by a former family court judge, fearing it would be just another waste of time. The group would consist of the “usual suspects,” such as lawyers, judges, domestic violence workers, custody evaluators, family therapists, and activists, among others. The work of this group would be facilitated by a professional mediator. After long consideration, Molly and Brian and their supporters overcame their skepticism and went back to work.
For the next 2 ½ years, the group traded opposing positions and arguments. On many occasions, it seemed that the differences were insurmountable. The help of the professional mediator was critical to overcoming these impasses. Brian says, “I don’t know what kind of pixie dust she threw in the room. At times when it appeared we were heading into a nosedive, her process allowed us to pull out of it and reach even greater heights than before.”
Still, after two full years (2013 and 2014), Brian and Molly were yet to be convinced. Brian recalls, “Despite the trust and the goodwill that clearly existed by that point, in December 2014 I thought it might all still collapse, because we still hadn’t gotten to the core issue of parenting time.”
Yet the mutual understandings that had been built up by two years of discussions paid off when long-time opponents of shared parenting legislation began to address the parenting time concerns of the activists. As a result, the list of factors the judge was to consider now included “the benefit to the child in maximizing time with both parents and the detriment to the child in limiting time with either parent.” For the first time, the benefits of maximizing time with both parents was recognized in Minnesota law and urged upon the judges.
Within weeks, the group’s proposed new custody law was passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by the Governor.
Brian’s advice to other groups is “the importance of trying this process in scenarios that look otherwise hopeless to solve…I went in thinking it was going to be a disaster and came out with hope.”
Brian now heads a sub-committee on “cultural change,” whose mission is to educate judges and lawyers about the new law.
Both he and Molly understand that the new law falls short of a rebuttable presumption of 50/50 shared parenting. Still, it is a big step in the right direction, and creates a foundation for further improvements in the future. They know their work is not done, but also know that thousands of children will be better off than if they had given up after years of effort were thwarted by Governor Dayton’s veto in 2012.