In a political season of divisiveness and discord, a hearing in the Minnesota House Judiciary Committee recently offered something surprisingly different: unity.
Rarely, in fact, have so many strange bedfellows come together in support of a bill which, in this case, recognizes the rights and obligations of dads. The Children's Equal and Shared Parenting Act, or HF322, awards each divorced parent at least 45.1 percent of parenting time, with clear exceptions, and gives them wiggle room for the remaining time.
Testifying in late February, liberal activist Mary Hansen issued an emotional plea to fellow feminists to "support the men we brought up right," by championing the bill, and family lawyer Michelle MacDonald concurred, referencing God and the Bible. There was 26-year-old Sarah Olson Andrews, whose college fund of $125,000 dissipated during a protracted custody battle, and 77-year-old social worker Jerome Schoenecker, who said the current system makes everybody a villain, "even Mom." The late Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, who threw his support toward the bill in his final days, was not in attendance, but his presence was felt. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Blue Earth, bellowed to a detractor from his seat on the committee, "I couldn't disagree with you more. This is a great bill."
With all that bipartisan, multi-generational support, you'd assume the bill's a shoo-in. But, no. On Wednesday, the bill was awaiting a fiscal note revision, which supporters believe will show it to be far less costly than original estimates, and opponents hope will be high enough to send the bill into the ether. I'm with the first group.
The bill, whose chief author is Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, isn't perfect, but it moves us closer to where we need to be, which is the 21st century. Despite many heartening trends in family law -- including collaborative law and mediation, parenting plans and Early Neutral Evaluation, which gets families out of the potentially toxic court system -- the reality is that most dads still don't come close to equal physical time with their kids.
The U.S. Census reported in 2005 that moms received physical placement in 84 percent of divorce cases. Currently, physical custody is intricately tied to financial support in a perplexing formula: The more time (mostly) dads have with their kids, the less they pay to (mostly) moms in child support, a formula that only salts open wounds.
The bill, which has gone through countless iterations to address concerns of judges, lawyers, parents and others, does not change current financial support guidelines and all current domestic violence provisions remain in place.
Molly Olson, a volunteer lobbyist and founder of the Center for Parental Responsibility, emphasizes that the bill "is not a mandate. Parents can agree to something different to best meet the circumstances of their unique family situation.
"This is long overdue," Olson said, noting that when she launched this effort 13 years ago, shared parenting was considered "fringe. Now we're mainstream. It's our time."
The hearing seemed to suggest that, as those testifying against the bill were largely outnumbered. Family lawyer Michael Black calls HF322 "a mandate disguised as a presumption. There is no imbalance in the system," Black said, noting that child custody decisions lead to "as many disappointed women as men."
In a follow-up interview, Black said that current law provides "a broad range of potential results." With the proposed bill, "there's very little wiggle-room for the courts."
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, sits on the Judiciary Committee and shares Black's concerns. "When you institute something like this, it works in some cases. But, as policy-makers, we have to look at the whole range of cases. It's a way overreaction that sets up conflict where there isn't now conflict. Sometimes, dads are discriminated against but, still, that doesn't mean the solution is a mandated presumption."
The Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers resoundingly opposed shared parenting presumptions at its annual conference in September.
It's tempting to take a cynical view and say that such opposition comes from a fear of lost income. In fact, I've taken that cynical view. I'm more inclined now to believe that there are good people on both sides of this highly charged debate and we all care about kids. We've just arrived at different answers to the question that matters most: When it comes to divorce, what is in the best interest of children?
I've got loads of studies that support shared and equal parenting as a way to lessen conflict between parents, build kids' self-esteem and get everybody moving forward faster. But it still remains a largely subjective question asked by imperfect human beings.
Those of us who firmly support HF322 do so because we believe that this bill is, in fact, in the best interest of children, by taking the greatest emotional burden off their backs.
During this most difficult transition, we are telling children that they cannot possibly have too many people in their lives who love them, with mom and dad, equally, at the top of that list.
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