The Hennepin County program, started in September, is being watched to see if it can help connect kids to parents, especially dads, in broken relationships.
The most important work in Hennepin County’s Co-Parent Court takes place in the two-hour classes that unmarried parents must take weekly for six weeks. Court “navigator’’ Maisha Giles, center, spoke with parents about anger management at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis.
At 2 p.m. on a recent Thursday, a lanky judge strolled into the courtroom on the 19th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center, took his seat and turned to the seven unmarried parents squirming in the jury box.
"Good afternoon," he said. "I'm Judge Peterson, and welcome to Co-Parent Court."
It was the start of a process with the goal of teaching them how to jointly raise their child, with District Judge Bruce Peterson serving as something of mentor and referee.
For the last three months the county has operated Co-Parent Court, a novel effort that is being watched around the country. Beyond determining the legal father and setting child support, the court aims to solve domestic problems that often wind up hurting the child most.
It was conceived in large part because Peterson and others saw a disconnect between Family Court, with its emphasis on marriages that have failed, and young, never-married parents who shared a child and sometimes not much else.
"It's completely innovative, as far as I can tell," said Prof. Kathryn Edin, who teaches social policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "This is the first state, the only state, to try something like Co-Parent Court."
The most important work takes place not in the courtroom but in a classroom. For six weeks, parents must take two-hour classes each week on subjects such as communicating, managing stress, dealing with domestic violence, and promoting bonding between the child and the parent -- usually the dad -- who isn't at home.
In the final class, the couples must fill out a parenting plan that puts in ink how they will resolve arguments, decide on the child's education and religion, schedule holidays and vacations. It even spells out how they get in touch with each other, with Facebook and texting among the options.
Then they return to Peterson's courtroom, where he reviews the plan, tweaks it if necessary and issues it as a court order. If either parent violates the terms, he or she will be called back into court to explain.
Pioneer parents in court
The whole idea, Peterson told the seven parents in the jury box, is that it's better for them to make decisions about raising their child than a judge.
"This is a pilot project ... so in a sense, you're pioneers," he told them.
Natashia Swanson was one of the first to go through Co-Parent Court, along with her ex-boyfriend, the father of her child. Swanson, a 23-year-old receptionist from Bloomington who is finishing her high school education, said the court process helped the couple decide without arguing about how to raise their child.
"It worked better than I expected," she said.
But it's not foolproof. When Swanson showed up earlier this month for the final hearing, her ex didn't show. Annoyed, she asked Peterson to proceed anyway. He agreed.
Not the same as Family Court
While many had a hand in developing Co-Parent Court, the idea was hatched and nurtured by Peterson. A former prosecutor, he has worked in Family Court for more than half of his 11 years on the bench and now handles civil and criminal cases.
In an interview, Peterson said he noticed that Family Court didn't much help the young, low-income couples, often belonging to minority groups, whose primary connection to each other was their child.
"We have a very sophisticated Family Court, but our services were really directed at divorcing couples, where there had been a marriage," he said. Married couples at least have shown some ability to work out differences, he said, but "unmarried people were on a different track."
Involving unmarried dads
Edin, who is including Co-Parent Court in a book she's writing about fatherhood, said she believes that it can get more unmarried dads involved in the raising of their children.
"It sends a really bad message when we treat fathers as paychecks and not as parents," she said. "The Co-Parent Court reinforces the social message that every child needs two parents."
More than 5,000 children are born to unmarried parents each year in Hennepin County. That's about a third of all county births. The unmarried rate for mothers from minority groups is especially high, said project coordinator Christa Anders. Of Hennepin County's black mothers born in the United States, 89 percent are unmarried.
A Princeton University study on "fragile families," which formed the basis for the new court, found a strong correlation between children's contact with their dad and later behavior. The more distant the relationship, the less success in school and the greater chances of teen pregnancy and drug use, the study found.
The Hennepin effort is the subject of a three-year study by the University of Minnesota. Each year 300 couples will be diverted from Family Court into Co-Parent Court. They will be compared with a control group of 300 other couples assigned as usual to Family Court.
The U study helped the court win federal funding and foundation support. The court's three-year budget is $1.35 million; $875,000 comes from the federal government, and most of the rest from the McKnight Foundation.
The university also helped develop the classroom program for the parents, called "Together We Can" and taught by court "navigators" Maisha Giles and John Jackson at NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center in north Minneapolis. Next month's class will have 26 parents.
Peterson said it's too early to tell how well the new court is working. But he's finding that once parents get engaged in the program, they want to continue.
"I think people want to be better parents, they want help," he said. "This whole program works on personal relationships."
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455