Hennepin County program is considered most developed in U.S.
When Anthony Spears walked into a Hennepin County courtroom with the mother of his infant daughter, he expected to be legally recognized as the father and to be told how much child support to pay each month.
Instead, the two were steered to co-parenting court, a three-year-old therapeutic court that aims to help unmarried parents resolve conflicts and set up a plan for raising their children. The topics include everything from what religion the child will observe to what time he or she will go to bed.
Hennepin County’s co-parenting court is considered the most developed in the country, and like its drug and veterans courts, the goal is a problem-solving venue that aims to help participants, not punish them. The idea is that when parents do better, children do, too.
It was inspired by Hennepin County District Judge Bruce Peterson’s years in family court, where he ran what he called an “unsatisfying” paternity calender. “We bring in all these young men and say, ‘Congratulations, you’re the father. Here’s your child support amount. Next case,’ ” he said.
Peterson wanted to find a way to help unmarried parents, now the majority of those seen in family court. “We’re trying to help people translate a temporary romantic relationship into a permanent parental partnership,” he said.
Spears, 23, said he’s learned the importance of being calm and patient while working to resolve issues with his child’s mother. “I have to sit back and respect her core beliefs instead of trying to change her,” he said.
Early assessments positive
A University of Minnesota report released this month suggests that the court has succeeded in helping fathers be a bigger and better part of their children’s lives.
Peterson said he considers “self-respect” among fathers who participated in the program one of the study’s most gratifying findings. “We’re instilling in fathers that they could be important to their children,” he said. “It’s the antidote to being called into court and treated like a checkbook.”
Couples who arrive in court on child support matters are selected for the program if they meet certain criteria: Both parents must arrive for the court date. One has to have been on or applied for public assistance. Neither can have an open domestic-violence protection order or an open child-protection case. Both must be able to speak English.
The university study looked at 709 mothers and fathers who participated in the program, 95 percent of whom do not live together. When both parents completed the program, 87 percent of child support was paid, the study said. For parents in the study’s control group who didn’t participate, that number was 69 percent.
Some 63 percent of mothers reported a “positive change” in their parenting bond, compared with 36 percent reporting improvement after going through traditional legal avenues.
Mothers who completed the program reported that fathers see their children more often compared with mothers not in the program.
Peterson hopes the study inspires the federal government to look at expanding the program. But he acknowledged that the final grade isn’t in. An upcoming university report will provide a cost-benefit analysis of the program.
Then there’s the long-term question: Will fathers continue “high-quality” involvement in their children’s lives after the program ends?
“We have to do everything we can to provide safe, stable, nurturing environments for children,” Peterson said.
Is it cost-effective?