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Rosenblum: Custody bill gets its wings clipped, but it might still fly

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • April 25, 2012 - 7:28 PM

Wednesday was an odd day to be walking the halls of the State Capitol, or maybe it was the perfect day. Turns out it was Parental Alienation Day, an international day of awareness about the marginalization many parents -- mostly dads -- experience after divorce.

Minnesota parents hoping to feel less alienated from child-rearing joys and responsibilities after divorce got a mixed report from their elected officials this week. First the good news:

The Children's Equal and Shared Parenting Act, known as HF322, passed the House of Representatives in its full form on April 18. The vote was 80 to 53 with bipartisan support.

The bill needs 34 votes to pass in the Senate, if it gets there in time. That leads us to the not-so-good news.

Late Tuesday, the bill was shut down in its last committee hearing before a Senate floor vote could be taken. Sen. Warren Limmer, chair of that chamber's Judiciary Committee, denies he killed it.

"I didn't kill anything," he said politely, but adamantly, seated in his office on Wednesday. "I informed the [bill's] authors that we do not have the votes. I asked the authors, 'Do you want to advance this bill and then have it fail? Or, pause right now and not advance it and build again?'

"There is an answer to this in the future," Limmer said, "but it's not today."

But anything can happen in politics (like a new Vikings stadium proposal enjoying more lives than a cat), and Limmer wasn't slamming the door completely. He acknowledged that this is an important issue, albeit complex, and that he is still open to a compromise in the waning hours of the session.

The bill would change the current child custody law so that each parent receives at least 45.1 percent of parenting time with their child. The current law provides for a minimum of 25 percent parenting time for child custody. The bill does not change current financial support guidelines and many exceptions are included, including that current domestic violence provisions remain in place.

The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, and in the Senate by Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, "has attracted a lot of interest," Limmer said. "Members sense that there is something wrong with the system."

Still, he said he was surprised by the "large margin" with which the bill passed in the House.

"The Senate is always more cautious than the House," he said. "It's designed to be more deliberative. The Senate is uncomfortable with a quick fix."

The bill actually has been introduced, reintroduced, reworked and massaged for 13 years, with rigorous review by judges, lawyers, legislators, therapists, mediators and legal scholars, among others.

Limmer also said the cost of implementation is too high. He estimated that $9 million will be needed in 2014 and 2015 to add as many as six judges and their support staff. Other estimates are far less.

But his biggest concern is that the bill will take discretionary powers away from judges in this "complex area of law."

"I never knew we had a best interest of the courts standard in Minnesota," responded shared-parenting activist Drew Rhoades. The divorced dad e-mailed legislators earlier this week, urging them to pass the bill.

"This isn't about lawyers and judges," Rhoades said. "It's about doing what is best for our children. Intact households provide two parents that equally share duties ... Why do we deviate from this thinking in divorce cases?"

So, what would Limmer consider doing at the 11th hour? If the bill's sponsors cut the presumption of parenting time to 35 percent, he said he thinks he could get enough buy-in to take it to the floor.

"This would be a good, positive step and, next year, we could keep moving the ball forward. The House wanted the whole enchilada."

I'm lousy at math, (although I do like enchiladas), but 65-35 percent doesn't sound like shared parenting to me. Still, it's a step forward. And Sen. Limmer and I do agree on something.

"The Legislature needs to address this issue and we need to have a thoughtful discussion," he said. "The measure of reform will probably be dictated by the level of rancor. Cooler heads will prevail and bring more meaningful change."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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