It may come as a surprise to many people that Minnesota custody law and the practices of Family Court are not much different from how enslaved families were treated on the antebellum Southern plantation.
In those dark days enslaved African Americans — many of whom lived in nuclear families with a father, mother and children — were by law treated as property. Each family member belonged to the same owner.
Often families would be separated, usually for economic reasons. Typically, the father was sold and the father and mother, now separated, would be said to have an "abroad marriage."
If the father now lived on a nearby plantation, perhaps several miles away, the slave owner might allow this father occasionally to walk to visit his children. These walks often occurred on Wednesday nights and Saturday evenings. However, the obligation to provide labor for one's owner always took precedence and fathers were often denied contact with their children.
It seems that little has been learned from the past. In the family courts across Minnesota the Wednesday night and Saturday evening walks persist in other forms. Fathers of color suffer disproportionately when confronting child custody law.
Today in Minnesota, custody law takes the form of winner-take-all. The winner is the "custodial parent" while the loser is the "visitor." This custody arrangement can be psychologically overwhelming for children already enduring their parents' divorce or separation.
Four decades of solid scientific research reveal the outcomes for children of separated parents raised in different arrangements. This research is compelling. On all metrics of well-being, children raised in equal shared-parenting arrangements do as well as and sometimes better than children raised in intact nuclear families. And they do much better than children raised in sole-custody arrangements.
The primary harm of divorce for children is not the separation of the parents but the loss of a true relationship with one of their parents.
The shared and equal parenting model should be the starting point for all custody adjudications. Shared parenting means that both parents maintain a household for the child. The child has meaningful, loving relationships with both parents, not just one.
Unfortunately, the only people who can get shared parenting are those able to spend large sums of money on litigation and go through a yearslong process, dictated by decades-old custody laws.
Consequently, less than 5% of custody disputes go to trial. Fathers of color see the writing on the wall and many times settle for less parenting time, figuring that is better than bankrupting themselves and probably getting even less custody time from a judge in the end.
This is where history repeats itself. Children get to see their father no more than every other weekend and a Wednesday dinner. And that is only if these fathers can get the time off from work.
As a result the family court system is inadvertently a powerful instrument of systemic racism when a Black father is involved.
A new statewide poll brings hope. The vast majority of Minnesotans — 97% — support a change to existing custody law awarding children as much time as possible with each parent and that both parents should have equal rights and responsibilities following divorce or separation.
There are steps that Minnesota's Legislature can and should take to help make shared parenting the norm in Minnesota. Creating a legal presumption that the substantial sharing of parental responsibilities is in children's best interest would address multiple problems.
It would help to break the outdated custodial-parent/noncustodial-parent model that too many parents fall into by default. It would signal to parents the benefits to children of shared parenting and the likely outcome of litigation, thereby reducing the legal costs of establishing a shared parenting arrangement. And it would reassure parents that divorce or separation need not diminish their relationship with their children, thereby lowering the anxiety some parents face when confronting the prospect of being sidelined in their children's lives.
This is what Minnesotans overwhelmingly want and what Minnesota children deserve.
Matthew Larson is Minnesota chair of the National Parents Organization (Sharedparenting.org).